Review: ‘Blackbird’ at the Belasco Theatre in NYC

Under Joe Mantello’s keen direction, Blackbird begins with a bang and ends with a cry in the night. In the 80 minutes that elapse between one and the other, his cast of two holds us tightly and never lets us go. A pin could drop in the theatre and you might just hear it hit the floor. Their encounter makes Strindberg’s Dance of Death move into second place when it comes down to “most powerful play involving two highly antagonistic characters.”

Michelle Williams (Una) and Jeff Daniels (Ray). Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.

Michelle Williams (Una) and Jeff Daniels (Ray). Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.

George and Martha come close in the climactic scene of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but Ray and Una in Blackbird start their battle at level 10 and don’t de-escalate for at least 20 minutes into the 80-minute playing time. There is a hiatus – each character is given a riveting monologue detailing their very complicated feelings in the fifteen years since their last one-on-one encounter. But then the heat returns, and they climax with a scene of devastating destruction that leaves them breathless just in time for a curve of a coda that once again leaves us limp.

That’s because these two characters, Ray and Una,  are played with consummate skill by Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams in a set by Scott Pask and  clothes chosen or designed by Ann Roth. They are further assisted by lighting (cold and calculated) designed by Brian MacDevitt and sound design by Fitz Patton, all of these elements conducted and orchestrated by director Mantello. He and Scott Pask  have joined Jeff Daniels in returning to the blistering script by David Harrower for the second time.

In 2007 with Allison Pill playing Una, the script erupted off Broadway and was well-received. Subsequently Mr. Daniels has returned to the theatre on several occasions and has had himself a major film career as well, highlighted by roles ranging from the dopey second half of the title Dumb and Dumber to the actor who couldn’t stay onscreen in The Purple Rose of Cairo. On TV he played a news anchor on the series The Newsroom. He usually plays likable and principled guys, which is perhaps one of the reasons the very unlikable Ray attracted him enough to return to him nine years after he first brought him to life.

In any case, in the lovely Michelle Williams he has found another worthy opponent. Her Una is a lost soul, 27 years old when we meet her here.

Fifteen years before the start of the play, she and Ray had had a tumultuous and devastating affair. At the time she was 12, and he was 40. Now, without warning, she appears uninvited and unannounced at his office. The play begins as he brings her into the lunch room in his firm grip. Clearly he is furious that she has tracked him down, and burst in on him without warning. As the play unravels we learn that all those years ago he had left her alone in a motel and the trauma of that desertion has plagued her in all the ensuing years. When the law caught up with him he spent a number of years in prison for the crime of pederasty. Her telling of the tale is the meat of the play, and his own version of it is the rest of the story. It’s compelling all the way through and the two performances earned deserved roars of approval when the ending came crashing down and the play was over.

If I have any reservation, it is  only to question the choice Mr. Daniels made, I assume with Mr. Mantello’s approval, to start Ray off on such an intense and high note. Shock, curiosity, fear would of course apply when this woman who had once been his lover suddenly arrives in his working world, for he was now living under an assumed name. But Daniels plays it all so truthfully I went with that decision of his, though it doesn’t give him room for much nuance in the early moments of the play. But he played it so well, and Ms. Williams responded so accurately, I was thoroughly caught up in the talent and craft he and she brought to this dark but fascinating tale of obsessive love.

In doing research on the title, I learned that blackbirds are one species that leave their young in the nest, leave without a backward glance or even a short goodbye. As a dramatist Mr. Harrower has made that condition, instinctive to some, the theme of his beautifully wrought drama, here given a beautiful production by Scott Rudin and his dozen or so associates, to all of whom we are indebted for so enriching the current theatre season. No winners here, just two knockout performances you will not soon forget.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

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Blackbird is playing at the Belasco Theatre – 111 West 44th Street, in New York City. For tickets, go to the box office, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or  (800) 447-7400, or purchase them online.

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