Blackbird tells the uncomfortable tale of a 27-year-old woman, Una (Francesca Ravera) stumbling upon Ray (Lenny Grossman), a 55-year-old man who went to prison for having sex with her when she was 12 years old.
When Una confronts Ray at his place of employment, he takes her into the break room, and in that room over the next 90 minutes they hash out their past relationship before he was arrested and imprisoned 15 years earlier.
David Harrower’s script introduces some thought-provoking angles to the proceedings; conflicts arise between Ray and Una about love, abandonment and jealousy, concepts over and above the explicit illegality and immorality of their past encounter. These ideas do generate some legitimate intellectual interest in the play but there’s not enough else going on to keep this production afloat.
In his thankless role as Ray, Grossman’s performance is perpetually defensive, harried and out of breath. As unlikable a character as Ray is expected to be, Grossman doesn’t quite manage to bring enough variation, warmth, or earnestness to the part to engender the compassion or believability needed to sustain it. Ravera seems physically uncomfortable in the character of Una. She speaks her lines with intention, but she awkwardly drags herself around the stage as though she’s never worn heels before, and her body belies her words, words which are sometimes lost in her thick accent and lack of projection. It’s surprising to see tears come to her eyes when there doesn’t seem to be enough organic truth coming out of her lines to warrant them.
The general absence of verisimilitude isn’t entirely the actors’ faults; there are times when the script asks them to say and do things that don’t make sense, like suddenly turning their attention toward the trash in the room when they’ve been talking so intensely about something important. This is just one example of several instances where the script calls for transitions that director Kim T. Sharp could have negotiated more subtly and with better arcs.
Speaking of trash, the set design by Amy Gallacher was efficiently simple but there was so much garbage strewn around the stage, it looked less like an employee break room and more like a subway station. Perhaps there would have been less trash cluttering the stage if the script hadn’t asked the characters to keep drawing their attention to it.
My theater companion, currently teaching English, told me that one of the exercises she gives her students is to make a significant statement with six words or less. She told me that to keep her eyes from closing during the show, she engaged in the mental exercise of trying to form such word combinations to describe the evening. After dispensing with “Does Chris hate me this much?,” she settled on “Premise intriguing; execution is not.” That pretty much says it all.
Blackbird (through October 3, 2021)
New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher Street, #1E, in Manhattan
For tickets visit http://www.newohiotheatre.org/2020-2021/blackbird
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission