Harrowing play about the effects of sexual abuse returns to New York with Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams.
Williams plays Una who was in a sexual relationship with neighbor Ray when she was 12 and he was 40. He went to prison for three and a half years and later changed his name, moved away and began a new life. She has had to live with the stigma and the emotional upheaval ever since. Having discovered his new name and whereabouts, she has come to confront him at his place of work. The play is like a cat and mouse game as they stalk each other and the power shifts from one to the other. He doesn’t know what she came for and he doesn’t want to tell her anything about his new life. Ironically it is revealed that she is only angry that he abandoned her, and we discover that he is still attracted to her. However, was this a one-time event in Ray’s life or is he still a pedophile? The judge in the trial ruled that Una was too mature for her age (she admits that she wanted him as her boyfriend), but as the adult, Ray is still guilty of an illicit relationship.
The problem with the staging begins from the outset. Daniels’ Ray, tense and rigid, pushes demanding, triumphant Una into a corporate break room. He is upset to see her, and she is all confidence and gloating. Unfortunately, this scene starts at so high a peak of emotion that the play has nowhere to go. In fact, while their startlingly different accounts of the night they ran off together ought to be the high point of the play, the opening scene is the peak of emotion instead. It is a calculated risk and it damages the play.
Despite the uneven rhythms, the actors are excellent. Both play damaged individuals who have never really progressed from their encounter. Williams, appareled in Ann Roth’s very short dress and extremely high heels, still seems the sexualized adolescent. Her delivery is hesitant, staccato, hardly ever finishing a sentence. As she goes back to the trauma of the past events and her life since she becomes more hysterical and more dangerous. Daniels, who towers over Williams, is at first cagey, then rueful and apologetic, and finally seductive. His terror is clearly evident that she may destroy his newly built life where he has been able to bury his past, at least to others. The encounter leaves them both changed, as it does the audience.
Only set designer Scott Pask returns from the earlier production. His antiseptic corporate breakroom in shades of grey is the perfect backdrop for the charged confrontations of the play. The tremendous amount of garbage from previous workers’ lunches seems to be a metaphor for the detritus of lives ill spent. Brian MacDevitt’s too bright lighting gives way to a subtle circle of illumination. This is intensely dramatic – until it becomes obvious and then it is difficult not to notice. Roth’s costumes define how the two characters want to be seen: Daniels in bland business clothing, almost a stark uniform, and Williams in a dress that is as provocative as it looks flimsy.
David Harrower’s Blackbird remains a searing, disturbing experience, with Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams giving blistering performances. It is only to be regretted that Joe Mantello’s direction impairs the play’s natural rhythms and tips its hand too soon.
Blackbird (through June 11, 2016)
Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.blackbirdbroadway.com
Running time: one hour and 20 minutes without an intermission
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