By Karen Isaacs
Blackbird, which is now getting a belated Broadway production starring Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams, is a disturbing play. It will alternately have you horrified and unsettled. It exemplifies what drama should do for an audience.
David Harrower’s play debuted in 2005 at the Edinburgh Festival and went on to London, where it won the Olivier award for best new play, and to productions around the world. Jeff Daniels starred in the Manhattan Theater Club’s off-Broadway production in 2008.
This two character piece focuses on a meeting between Ray (Jeff Daniels) and Una (Michelle Williams) fifteen years after a traumatic event. They have a complicated history. When Una was 12 and Ray 40, there was a sexual molestation; a one-time thing. Ray was arrested and jailed and has now rebuilt his life. Una is now an adult and has sought Ray out.
But why? You are never quite sure why Una comes to Ray’s workplace and barges in. Is it to seek some sort of revenge? To try to understand or rehash the past? To make him suffer? Or hidden beneath the surface, is there something else? The possibilities are endless.
She is certainly the aggressor in this meeting – controlling the space and the conversation. Ray is confused by her appearance and her motives. He has rebuilt his life, even changing his name, and he does not want to lose that.
During the course of several hours, tensions and emotions run high. Una alternately attacks Ray and reminisces about the events. She had a 12-year-old’s crush on him, a neighbor whom her father invited into the house. She talks about planning ways to see him, wanting him for herself, and fantasies that are typical of the young adolescent.
Ray was a loner, perhaps uncomfortable in relationships, and he was drawn to Una and her
admiration. In many ways he treated her like an adult and viewed her that way; he claims he felt a love for her. One night, he takes her to a seaside resort and they have sex. He leaves her in the room to go out for cigarettes, but now tells her that he became horrified at what he did, and drove around. When he goes back to pick up, he couldn’t find out her– she went out looking for him – so he took the ferry back to the mainland. Una was taken in by a couple and her parents and the police were called.
It is interesting that Daniels wants to revisit this role which is emotionally draining. When he first performed it in 2008, he was probably too young for Ray; now he looks the part of a 55 year old man – a little paunchy, a little gray, and tired.
Michelle Williams plays Una as all nervous energy – you expect to see her explode. She fidgets, moves around the room, stands awkwardly and at times still seems like an adolescent. We learn very little of her present day life exception that the neighbors and town folk pointed her out and gawked at her during her teenage years and that she has undergone much therapy. Was this meeting a therapist’s idea?
As Williams plays her, Una is many ways both angry and jealous. She is jealous of Ray’s new life and is very interested to know whether he is in a relationship (he is) and what his woman friend looks and acts like. The thought may cross your mind that Una is still a little bit smitten with Ray and unconsciously she may want to rekindle the relationship.
Daniels plays Ray as a man initially wary and trying to control (not totally successfully) his panic. He feels cornered by her presence and unsure if she has talked or told anyone who now knows him about the past. He sees his world falling apart. His portrayal deepens in many ways – to anger, regret, memory and exhaustion.
Joe Mantello has directed this piece with finesse; he is also revisiting this piece, having directed the off-Broadway production. At times, it seems as though both performers start on too “intense” an emotional level which gives them very little room for building the emotions. But it also works by letting them at some point move into exhaustion.
The set and lighting by Scott Pask and Brian MacDevitt recreate a sterile company break room – all white, hard surfaces and glaring florescent lights. Even the debris of other employees’ food wrappers adds to the feeling.
Blackbird now at the Belasco Theater, 111 W. 44th Street through June 11, is a challenging, well acted play that may have you questioning your own reactions to it. Tickets are available through Telecharge