Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 10, 2016
Blackbird by David Harrower. Directed by Joe Mantello. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Ann Roth. Lighting design by Brian Macdevitt. Sound design by Fitz Patton. Cast: Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams.
This Joe Mantello mounting of the play, which originally opened at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2007, remains one of the most painfully overwrought of anything I've ever seenthough, if you're being generous, its intentions aren't terrible. Based (according to Harrower) on the story of American ex-marine Toby Studebaker and the relationship he had with a British tween schoolgirl he met online, it outwardly appears to want to excavate, from the detritus of the worst of human experience, an explanation of how we can move on (or not) from the unthinkable. It does not, however, play that way.
Understanding why requires some look at what little of the plot remains to be recounted. Ray (Jeff Daniels, who also starred at MTC) initiated a three-month relationship with Una (Michelle Williams) 15 years ago, when he was 40 and she was 12. After several years in prison, he started a new life under a new name (Peter), but had the misfortune of appearing in a magazine ad. Una saw it, came to his office, and... well, that's about it.
Their reunion, which unfolds across 80 minutes, involves a lot of screaming, kicking and punching, and remarking about and throwing the trash that litters the floor and tables of Scott Pask's conference room set. She complains how he ruined her life, he insists he didn't mean to and never repeated his behavior. This continues until it stops at an arbitrary point so it can suggests (spoilers!) that the business between them is far from concluded.
There's nothing inherently wrong with a premise this thin, but it can't stay thin, let alone be directed and acted that way. A lack of resolution can itself be the intended resolution, but getting there demands a no-holds barred investigation of the two involved, so that their decision is, in effect, ours. Our knee-jerk reaction is that Ray is disgusting and Una's life has been ruined; the playwright must either confirm and justify this assessment, or refute it and detail why it's wrong. You can't travel in a complete circle without some motion.
But there isn't any here. Almost all of the play is dedicated to providing background to what we know from the opening minutes, with the expectation that it will eventually bloom into something expansive, worthwhile, or at least different. But the final 10 minutes are a bare recasting of earlier ideas, stating in (barely) fresh language things we already knew or could infer. There's one gasp-inducing shock event, but Harrower defuses it immediately, so as not to derail your express train to nowhere.
All you get along the way is bland surface-level psychology that doesn't cohere into a credible personality for either Ray or Una. The dialogue is all placeholder stuff disconnected from what facts we know. "Is it me?" Una asks when Ray starts rubbing his eyes. "Am I making that happen? Are you allergic to me?" But Ray's affection, then or now, is not dramatized, which sinks the question the moment it's uttered. Later, a lengthy discussion about child porn climaxes in Ray's admission that he burned all the photos he took of Unain which she was fully clothed.
Una's after-the-fact protestations, too, sound programmed, as if out of a recovery guidebook. "I was too young. Too, too in love. Too stupid not to have been older"huh?"not to have, have, the awareness, the experience. But that's what you wanted. I didn't ask difficult questions. I didn't have any questions to ask. I wanted anything you wanted."
The whole play is like this, not about confronting unresolved pain and providing the necessary expiation (however ineffective), but unleashing quick hits that can't puncture the skin because they barely bruise.
Mantello, who has done infinitely better directing work in recent years with, among others, The Other Place, Casa Valentina, The Last Ship, and The Humans (also currently on Broadway), ensures there's no room to grow, either. From the first instant that Jay shoves Una onto the stage, things are already pitched at 11. Daniels is so visibly, artificially angry that his limbs have stiffened into lurching steel poles. And Williams's face, bearing a vague half-sneer but totally blank beneath the eyes, declares a singularity of destructive purpose that leaves no new levels left for her to find within Una.
Nothing either actor does is natural or recognizable from there; it's all mechanical, robotic. Ray isn't concealing angst and remorse beneath his blustery exterior, he's just upset at getting caughtat least with the listless, directionless jitteriness with which Daniels plays him. And Williams's Una isn't trying to sort scattered feelings, but just sort of eject them as though her entire reason for existence is one long spit. Williams, who originated Sally Bowles in the 2014 Roundabout revival of its Cabaret revival, delivers all her lines with a scrunched face, as though she's squinting at an eye chart, and a whiny see-how-I've never-grown-up voice. Her character's bewildering centerpiecea molasses-thick, rambling 20-minute monologue about the last night she saw Rayis so arid, it may as well be Williams's 34-line Playbill bio.
Even Brian Macdevitt's lighting of this moment, which involves a stage-wide dimming and a hyper-obvious spot on the speaker, suggests it's not to be taken seriously, as though it's merely an abstraction and an extraction of theatrical legerdemain rather than words that pour from a wounded heart. There's nothing to take away from either of these people, because they're not peoplethey're representations of a concept, and a play about a concept is a hard sell and often a harder sit.
The entire thing comes across as a gigantic gag, in fact: mocking the seemingly unmockable, as though genuine emotion here is so unknown and unknowable that we shouldn't bother pretending they exist. For that reason, it might be that Harrower and Mantello view Blackbird as a sly commentary on theatre as therapy as theatre, an open acknowledgment that any dissection of an issue this big is automatically cheapened by subjecting it to the artifice of live performance. And that, by repudiating every conceivable good and honest choice, they're implicating us: When you rely too much on art to exorcise your demons, this is what you get.
No, there's nothing in the play to support this interpretation. But I'd rather give the artists involved some benefit of the doubt than have to include they meant to make Blackbird as exploitative and just-plain bad as it so often is.