David Harrower’s Blackbird won the coveted Olivier Award over Frost/Nixon and Rock ‘n’ Roll, scripts by exceptional playwrights Peter Morgan and Tom Stoppard. But while the runners-up feature a playfulness with and fluidity of language, Blackbird comes straight from the gut. Many will find the central conversation frustrating, upsetting and too full of ambiguity. This piece grew from questions Harrower asked himself after reading a newspaper story about an older man running away with a girl. Not daring to presume what may be in the minds of others, he leaves it to you to answer some of those questions for yourself. Your conclusions will almost certainly change during the 80 minute running time and may continue to morph for days after the lights come down.
The central discussion is about a life changing event the two characters shared 15 years before. In those intervening years, the event has been defined and interpreted many times by people who weren’t involved. We are witnesses to their first real-time exploration with the only other person who could really shine a light on that period. Harrower’s writing style contains the poetry of Pinter, the brusqueness of Mamet and the discomfort of Shepard all rolled into a stomach-clenching ball. There is a constant flow of heightening and receding of vulnerabilities and therefore a shifting of which character is in command of the situation. It’s easy to imagine that the power-shifts also happened in the past. This possibility acts as a filter through which we struggle to find the truth. We are forced to withhold final judgement, waiting to hear what the next piece of information will tell us about our two players.
The pair have moved forward in extremely different ways. Peter (formerly known as Ray) has used the years to reconstruct himself and build a workable life. It is a blessing that he is played by Jeff Daniels, who is not only immensely talented but supremely likable. Even in his most ugly moments, you can envision really enjoying having dinner with him. Conversely, Una has repeatedly lived only those few months from slightly different angles, so that they ARE her. Having seen Michelle Williams grow up on television and in movies it’s actually quite easy to picture her at the necessary stages. What is missing is a feeling of genuine relationship between them. While their individual speeches were pitch-perfect, their emotional connection was weak. At times the actors just seemed tired.
This is the second time Joe Mantello has directed Blackbird on Broadway. It is appropriate that he stages a messy, intimate conversation in a garbage strewn, claustrophobic break room. The candy wrappers and empty bottles also provide the actors with “business” to fill in their unfinished sentences. Scott Pask’s set is so perfectly ordinary, the young man behind me kept comparing it to his own office. Essential shading is provided by Brian Macdevitt’s lighting and Fitz Patton’s sound design. However, I found the creative decision to move the location from England to America less successful. There are some plot details that would make more sense across the pond.
Blackbird is playing at the gloriously restored Belasco Theater through June 11, 2016. For tickets and information visit http://blackbirdbroadway.com.