“Shock,” Michelle Williams says, as Jeff Daniels rushes her into the messy break room of an antiseptic corporate office, alarmed. It’s the first word in “Blackbird,” a play by David Harrower in which Una, a 27-year-old woman, tracks down Ray, a middle-aged man who had sex with her when she was 12. “What’ve you come here for?” Ray asks.
It’s a disturbing set-up, but my shock is reserved for the free pass that so many have been giving to a revival that feels like little more than a star-driven exercise in showy acting and goosed-up dramatic tension.
The playwright has said that he wrote “Blackbird” in 2005 inspired by the true story of Toby Studebaker, a 32-year-old U.S. marine who met a 12-year-old British girl online and convinced her to fly with him to a hotel room in Paris, where they had sex for several days. He was jailed for four years in the U.K., then extradited to the United States to serve an 11-year sentence.
Harrower changed the circumstances, keeping only the basic premise: Ray seduced Una when she was 12, he was jailed for his crime (for three years), and the attraction was mutual. Now, Ray has changed his name and moved out of state, and gotten a (never specified) white-collar job. Una saw his photograph in a trade magazine and just showed up at his office unannounced. Why? It’s not clear that Una knows herself. Both characters struggle with ambiguity and uncertainty – as does the play: Ray makes a point of denying that he fits the profile of the pedophile, that it was Una to whom he was drawn, having nothing to do with her age – a claim that the play’s ending brings into doubt.
“Blackbird” won the UK’s 2007 Olivier Award for Best Play, and is soon to be a movie starring Ben Mendelsohn and Rooney Mara. Joe Mantello directed a production of the play Off-Broadway in 2007, with a cast of Jeff Daniels and Alison Pill. Both director and Daniels are reprising the play nine years later, this time in Broadway’s Belasco Theater, which has more than three times the number of seats (and of course higher ticket prices.)
I did not see the earlier production of “Blackbird,” but I have seen a production of Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned To Drive,” which was awarded the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and which handles almost the exact same issue articulately and with nuance. I also saw David Holthouse’s “Stalking The Bogeyman,” which is a dramatization of his childhood rape by a neighbor and his adult quest for revenge.
The revival of “Blackbird” at the Belasco, by contrast, feels neither articulate nor authentic. The characters in “Blackbird” are themselves not articulate; they rarely finish a sentence, or a thought. That initial “Shock” as a complete line of dialogue is more or less typical. Una’s long monologue recounting their long-ago sexual encounter and its aftermath is the single exception. One wonders if the playwright meant for us to see that their mutual trauma turned them semi-speechless, or whether their difficulty in communicating helps explain how they would be drawn to one another in the first place.
In any case, the vague dialogue puts an extra burden on the performers. Daniels and Williams have a long track record of impressive performances, and Mantello is one of our premier theater directors, as is evident from the other play he directed this season on Broadway, “The Humans.” It’s safe to say that “Blackbird” doesn’t represent their best work. The actors start in high gear and never modulate, the 80 minutes full of their pacing and trembling and intense shaking, emptying the trash bins of their contents (a metaphor for the mess of their lives?), violently grappling with one another. All these histrionics surely put a physical and emotional demand on the actors, and I suppose it’s all watchable, especially since the performers are celebrities. But it would be a stretch to find it illuminating.
Written by David Harrower; Directed by Joe Mantello
Scenic design by Scott Pask, costume design by Ann Roth, lighting design by Brian Macdevit, sound design by Fitz Patton
Cast Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams
Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $39 to $149
“Blackbird” is scheduled to run through June 11, 2016