The phrase “burst onto the scene” is a tiresome cliché invoked to describe the emergence of a promising new talent. There are times, though, when the four words are completely earned. One is at the start of David Harrower’s Blackbird. That’s when Ray (Jeff Daniels), now known as Peter, and Una (Michelle Williams) burst into the opening scene like two train cars hurtling toward one another.
In this Broadway revival of a play seen at Manhattan Theater Club in 2007 (it premiered in Edinburgh in 2005), these two characters start off immediately battling each other—and with a harrowing intensity that doesn’t abate for 90 intermissionless minutes. The pun on the author’s name is intended.
The cause of their mounting angst, to use the mildest appellation that comes to mind, is a Lolita-like affair that occurred 15 years earlier — when Una was 12, and Ray, as she continues to call him, was 40.
Initially it seems that Una tracked down Ray after seeing his photograph in a magazine in order to seek an apology and retribution. But now that she’s wangled her way into his workplace, he roughly led her to the break room so that his co-workers won’t overhear their oncoming contretemps. (Scott Pask’s set, deliberately dehumanizing and little-changed from the 2007 production, includes a vending machine.)
While pacing around a communal table, the ex-lovers quarrel vituperatively, with Una maintaining the upper hand most of the time, although director Joe Mantello skillfully balances the seesawing rhythms of their arguments. After a period of time, and as the characters face off in a claustrophobic space where litter symbolically spills from a tall wastebasket, the power between them shifts back and forth. After a longer period of time, their shared powerlessness becomes clear.
As Harrower shapes things, the Ray-Una backstory comes increasingly into focus. Their illicit, several-months-long liaison remains Ray’s devastating mistake: he claims he “couldn’t help himself” when, of course, as the adult, that was untrue. On the other hand, Una, then at the edge of adolescent sexual development, did evidence affection and curiosity for Ray — perhaps not unusual in a child being shown attention by an older man.
Harrower has even more that he wants to say about this unfolding and inflammatory confrontation than Una’s intention to seek a confession from brought-to-his knees Ray. He absolutely wants more than Una exacting a promise that he’s taken advantage of no other young girls since their relationship ended.
Indeed, Harrower has an entirely different kettle of psychological fish to fry. His intentions are more profoundly upsetting not just for Una and Ray but for the audience. He digs deeper into the dynamics of Una and Ray’s relationship than even Vladimir Nabokov did with his classic Lolita-Humbert Humbert tale. (Remember, Lolita was also 12 when she was seduced — or vice versa. Harrower surely knows as much and is thinking about it.)
Precisely what the playwright suggests won’t be revealed here, but it’s a coup de theatre that can shock — even if it doesn’t surprise. To top his revelation, Harrower introduces yet another twist that will also remain undisclosed.
Because the actors enter at such high-energy levels, they’re asked to throw everything they have into their roles as they charge along. Wearing a skimpy, flowery dress and high heels (courtesy of costume designer Ann Roth) that she eventually chucks, Williams plays Una as a nervous wreck, fairly shaking with rage and fear from get-go to blackout. Late in the play, she delivers a minutes-long monologue detailing her broken life that requires her to plumb soul-stirring depths. As she does, she only becomes more and more mesmerizing. (Lighting designer Brian MacDevitt enhances the spell.)
Daniels inhabits Ray with an equal emotional punch. As a man in terror at having been found and just as angry to have been unmasked, he also trembles through much of his performance. Racing back and forth, he’s not like a caged animal, he turns into a caged animal. Often cast as a representative of firm authority — witness his work in the Oscar-nominated film Steve Jobs — here he’s working the opposite end of the acting spectrum, like gangbusters.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Daniels is practically excavating.[/pullquote]Devoted theatergoers know that Daniels originated the Ray-Peter role stateside and has now returned to it. But for him it’s brilliantly clear that it isn’t a matter of relearning lines that didn’t immediately come back to him. Daniels has written about burrowing farther into the man’s psyche than he had the courage to do nine years ago. As unflinchingly directed once again by Mantello, he’s practically excavating.
During the curtain calls, Daniels and Williams look like championship boxers after the 15th round, both listening to the announcement of a split decision. They’re good actors and could fake the exhaustion to goose their standing ovation. They don’t.
As I walked up the aisle to exit the theater, I heard more than one person ask, “How do they do it eight times a week?” Maybe the answer is: no actor worth his or her salt would turn down a part in a play this challenging.