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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Manhattan Theatre Club, New York

By Bill Stevenson

  Alison Pill, Jeff Daniels/Photo Joan Marcus

There's always a danger in reading glowing notices of a play before seeing it. One's expectations soar, and the likelihood of being disappointed increases. Blackbird I'm happy to report, lives up to the rave reviews, the hype, and the buzz. What's more, Manhattan Theatre Club has mounted a crackling production featuring superb performances by Jeff Daniels and Alison Pill.

Written by the previously unheralded Englishman David Harrower Blackbird,boasts provocative subject matter: an affair between a 40-year-old man and a 12-year-old girl. At the time of the play, 15 years have passed. Still haunted by the abusive affair, Una (Alison Pill) has tracked down Ray (Jeff Daniels) to the nondescript factory where he works. Ray, who has spent time in jail and been labeled a pedophile (a label he strenuously rejects), has tried to forget about Una and put the experience behind him. He's less than thrilled when this "ghost" surprises him at work, and one of the play's themes is that one can never entirely escape one's past.

Una hasn't been able to shake the memory of Ray-who has changed his name to Paul-or their affair. In a beautifully written monologue, she recounts the relationship's painful, humiliating ending. Pill (a Tony nominee for The Lieutenant of Inishmore) expertly handles the lengthy speech while revealing that Una's pain remains quite fresh. The actress could pass for a teenager, making it that much easier for the audience to picture her as a girl at the time of the affair.

Film and theater veteran Daniels, who recounts Ray's side of the story in another emotional monologue, is equally impressive as the apparently rehabilitated Ray. Thanks in part to Harrower's thoughtful script, Daniels makes Ray sympathetic despite the damage he did to Una. It would have been easier to make him a monster; instead Daniels plays him as an ordinary, flawed middle-aged man who succumbed to temptation.

Nothing in the play is cut and dried, however. Harrower throws in a nifty twist near the end that raises unsettling questions. He's a crafty playwright, and we will no doubt be hearing a lot more from him.

Along with the terrific actors, director Joe Mantello deserves credit for maintaining the tension and intensity for 90 minutes. If there was any doubt, Mantello and his cast are proving that Blackbird is just as powerful with American accents as it was with English ones. And if Harrower's uncompromising play transfers to Broadway, let's hope that it will land in a small house where the intensity can be preserved. I imagine Blackbird will eventually take wing to theaters around the country( in fact, a production by ACT, opens on the West Coast at the end of April) and abroad. A feature film probably won't be far behind.

But Manhattan Theatre Club's gripping production will be a tough act to follow.


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