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Blackbird - Elizabeth Ahlfors

Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels
Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels

Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors

For 80 gripping minutes, Jeff Daniels (Ray) and Michelle Williams (Una), throw down the gauntlet and go for the throat in David Harrower's disturbing tale of sexual exploitation, Blackbird

 After 40-year old Ray had an affair with 12-year-old Una, he was caught and spent three years behind bars.  Ray feels he has served his time and deserves to live a new life with a new name and identity.  The victim, Una, also feels she was imprisoned and shoots back at him. "I lost more than you ever did.  I lost because I never had time to begin." 

 The playwright mentioned being inspired by a jazz improvisation of the old standard, "Bye, Bye Blackbird."  One can see in Blackbird, when the two meet again 15 years later, the meeting shakes into a one-day power struggle of panic and acrimony, fraught with twisting rhythms, tones and colors of emotion. 

 It is the end of the day in Scott Pask’s bleak utilitarian room of a supply manufacturer.  The usually drab room under fluorescent lighting is littered with overflowing trash bins, papers and containers.  Ray seems to be cleaning up when suddenly Una appears, having tracked him down after seeing a photo in a magazine. 

 Directed by Joe Mantello, the tension never loosens its grip as the two confront each other, Ray, tense with clenched fists, eye rubbing and spastic bursts of panic and Una, still looking childlike and vulnerable in a flouncy thin dress.  Both are ruled by their memories.  What had really happened between them and who was the seducer?  What draw did Ray feel for the child, Una?  Is he a pedophile or was he manipulated by a Lolita?  He denies being a pedophile, stating, "I was never one of them."  He fears that his new life is threatened but is he actually deceiving himself with an imposter's new life.

 And what does Una feel for him?  Is she here for a reckoning, revenge?  In a emotionally torturous performance, Williams shows Una as a spindly bundle of nerves, confusion and bottled-up fury, focused on the fact that he had deserted her when their affair was discovered.  She is immature and teases him with flirtation and threats of exposure.  Their sudden grasping at each other speaks of a lingering sexual lure and yet is shadowed by turmoil and guilt.   

 Any conclusions drawn at the start of the play are tossed in the air to settle down in new patterns of ambiguity as Ray and Una unveil the psychological and heated events that lead to this intensely heightening reunion.  It is hard to sympathize with either of these characters despite the chaos they suffer.  The staccato rhythms of Harrower's dialogue adds to the edgy atmosphere.

 The play originated in 2005 in Edinburgh and then transferred to London where it won the Olivier Award for Best New Play.  In 2007, Blackbird appeared Off-Broadway in the Manhattan Theater Club starring Jeff Daniels with Alison Pill.

 Blackbird is far from an entertaining visit to the theater but it offers Harrower's brutally honest script, Mantello's adroit direction of the provocative twists and undeniably compelling acting by Jeff Daniels and a fierce Michelle Williams.

Belasco Theatre
111 West 44th Street
http://blackbirdbroadway.com
Previews: Feb. 5, 2016. Opens: Mar. 3, 2016. Closes: June 12, 2016..
Playwright: David Harrower
Director: Joe Mantello
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors