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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at Manhattan Theatre Club, New York


  Jeff Daniels and Alison Pill/Photo Joan Marcus

Blackbird is set in a trash-strewn, gray and white conference room so imbued with a harsh fluorescent glare even the cockroaches must avoid it. The first word spoken in the play is "Shock," followed by "Of course, yes," but I've forgotten who exclaimed, who responded. I suppose it was Ray speaking first, as he shoved Una into that sterile cage for an hour and a half of real-time combat. Blackbird is a savage tournament and in a way, neither Ray nor Una gets out alive.

Ray, who works here in some unnamed capacity (he might be a midlevel executive; he might be the janitor), had a three-month-long sexual relationship with Una 15 years earlier. He was 40. She was 12. It is shocking, of course, yes. He spent three years and seven months in prison, moved to another town, changed his name, maybe put the past behind him. Una could not. No serial therapies, lovers, diversions could restore her girlhood. She says: "I never had time to begin."

Having spotted Ray in a trade-magazine photograph (this unnecessary detail strains credibility), she has tracked him down, finally to confront him after all these years. Why did he do it? she needs to know. He has a new life, he says, with a grown up woman. He has even told this woman about her. He would rather not talk about it. As co-workers pass by like ectoplasmic blobs through the frosted glass, some peering in as if they could make out the figures, Ray and Una circle each other, one the stalker, the other the wounded prey.

Here's the thing about Blackbird, though, the terrifying, squirm-in-your-seat-making thing, the thing that stays with you long after the 90 minutes have passed. It soon becomes clear that stalker and prey are relative terms, even in a tournament between unequals such as this. Is Ray a predator, Humbert Humbert to Una's Lolita, Big Bad Wolf to her Red Riding Hood? Was this a love-a love that dare not speak its name, but a love no less and one that persists to this day?

As the stakes get higher, the air more electric with tension, the roles Ray and Una have assumed of one another, imposed on one another, grow blurry. He reminds her that after their first chance meeting during a neighborly summer barbecue, she pursued him. Yes, they had made an instant connection, he detecting in her pools of precocious anger, maybe darkness, maybe yearning. And she had responded to that like a magnet, going after him, shadowing him, being . . . available.

She had forgotten some of that aspect of the narrative, she concedes.

No, he insists, he has never ever had any interest in any other girls, had no interest in her until, well until he did.

As skillfully as the young Scottish playwright David Harrower lets out the line, one minute to Ray, the next to Una, before yanking it in, a formidable array of talent will still be needed if Blackbird is to play as more than a melodrama. Scott Pask's soulless set is nightmarishly right, as is Paul Gallo's lighting, which shifts from icy to death and back again. And Laura Bauer's costumes capture these two people-he a polyester-wrapped lug, she a girl still playing at womanliness-with unselfconscious ease.

The play unfolds like a modern concerto, Stravinsky or Ives, with a jagged, staccato start, legato middle and stormy end. Joe Mantello is a superb conductor of such nuanced effects and Blackbird is impeccably staged, the actors often increasing the drama by decreasing the volume and the gesticulations, forcing us to lean in for every word. This is never truer than in Una's devastating recounting of the night she lost her virginity to Ray, in a motel in a distant village, before he left her, perhaps innocently, to come to terms with what he'd done, perhaps malevolently, out of crude if not misplaced fear.


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