New York City Theater
The room is a mess: the garbage basket overflows, wrappers, boxes and bits of food litter the floor and table. In a corner, a vending machine with, no doubt, junk food waiting to be accessed. Waste. The detritus of sloppy consumers, unheeding citizens, corporate greed, the end result of gluttony and irresponsibility by those who “expect other people to clean up after them.”
As both metaphor and reality, the space, an office break room isolated by opaque glass, is the hellish setting for the stinging revival of “Blackbird,” David Harrower’s complex domestic tragedy. Repeating his role of Ray from the 2007 off-Broadway production, Jeff Daniels viscerally conveys the sweaty torment of someone who, despite fearing discovery, has his hand continually caught in the cookie jar.
Off-Broadway, his nemesis, Una, was played by a young and vulnerable Alison Pill. In this Main Stem production, Michelle Williams is older, less vulnerable but also more damaged, a more hopeless and helpless soul with miles of sordid experience behind her. Vengeful, confused and angry by turns, she is a girl-woman in the throes of cold and seemingly unyielding passion.
Una and Ray have come together, 15 years after mutual seduction and her abandonment by him. He was 40 then, she was 12, a child yes, but one who knew he score. It was the abandonment, not the seduction that has stayed with her. Despite his changing his name from Ray to Peter, finding a steady job, trying to turn his life around after three-plus years in prison, Ray finds himself as turned on by Una as he was originally.
To her growing horror, so is she. But first she wants at least a modicum of revenge, desperate to not give him authority over her. Now it’s her turn. She knows that bringing up the past is a threat to his current situation. There are no excuses for their past relationship, just explanations and accusations, as they torture themselves and each other with memories and misperceptions.
“I did the sentence,” she tells him. “I lost everything. I lost more than you ever did.” To which he justifies his actions by removing himself from serial child molesters, “those sick bastards. I was never one of them. I was never that.”
Yet is there a cycle, a pattern of abuse? Is it love? Is it protection? Harrower has written not a tract but a fierce battle between two people who cannot break the chains of the past, who live in the squalor of their memories.
Joe Mantello’s direction is knife-sharp, creating an edge-of-your-seat tension that rises to almost unbearable heights, followed by a much needed intake of breath. Jeff Daniels is, from the outset, at the breaking point; it might have been more believable to show him as wary, anxious and unsure than fearful and overwrought from the start. But that’s the choice and doesn’t affect the strength of his performance.
Michelle Williams’ Una is a stew of contradictions. In her baby doll dress (a perfect creation by Ann Roth), her long legs ending up in black high heels, barely moving as she defies his desperation to throw her out of the room and his life. She’s the vengeful child-woman determined to re-enact her worst nightmare. In her long monologue recounting the night they were together, she paints a redoubtable portrait of corruption and adulation which is exactly the dichotomy of life.
There’s bound to be mess in every life. The question is who will clean it up and, perversely, can it ever be truly clean anyway? “Blackbird” offers no definitive answers because there are none.
--David A. Rosenberg
March 23, 2016