Review: Blackbird

IMG_20160216_161720757There’s a shocking contrast between the gorgeous interior of the Belasco and the scenery onstage. The recently-refurbished Belasco is dark and ornate, with lush stained glass lighting. Onstage, we see a harsh, cold office setting, with gray walls, fluorescent lighting and frosted windows. I took one look at the set for Blackbird and thought “Ugh. A work play.”

But that’s ridiculous. Blackbird is no office drama. (And I already knew that, anyway.) It’s inspired by the story of Toby Studebaker, a man who groomed, then ran off with a 12-year-old girl in 2003. In Blackbird, the now-grown young woman (Michelle Williams as Una) finds, then confronts fiftysomething Ray (a wonderful Jeff Daniels) fifteen years after he molested her at age 12. He has moved several hours away, changed his name, and started a new life. Lucky guy. His victim wasn’t able to do any of that.

But this isn’t an entirely straightforward story of a predatory pedophile. Both Una and Ray found their three-month flirtation and affair the central emotional experience of their lives; their tough facades crack and then shatter as the play goes on. It’s a harsh, difficult play, with an unflinching approach towards its subject. Its characters speaking in halting, uncertain sentences, full of meaning and tension.

It’s an impressive piece of writing. I didn’t like it much.

Blackbird, written by David Harrower, debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2005, then won the 2007 Olivier for Best Play. Its New York debut was also in 2007, at the Manhattan Theatre Club, starring Mr. Daniels and Alison Pill as Una. The director then was Joe Mantello, who has also directed the production I saw last night. (I believe, but don’t know for certain, that the staging was a recreation of his original direction. The 2007 production looks just the same in the photos.)

To be honest, I’d probably have liked it better had I seen it then. The first reason is obvious: a play like this would fit perfectly in an intimate — even claustrophobic– space. (It started at the Edinburgh Fringe, for crying out loud.) The Belasco isn’t huge, but it’s not a 300 seater, either. My seat was far enough away for some of that tension to dissolve.

And the second reason: Michelle Williams. She’s a committed performer, and I really did want to like her. But I just wasn’t convinced. Every line she spoke seemed soaked in pathos. Or more bluntly: she overacts. Now, her character has been through a lot, and her line readings were convincing on an individual basis. But on the whole her performance felt out of sync with the fragile character she was portraying. Now, this is an early preview, and I hope that her performance smooths out as time goes on. Still, though, I wish I’d seen Alison Pill. Jeff Daniels was utterly convincing, and the script was impressive, and the direction was clear and dynamic. But without a strong leading lady, the whole thing fell apart a bit.

Even in the best possible production, though, I’d imagine Blackbird is never really a play you enjoy. (I’d say it’s a play you simply survive, but that sounds a little catty, I suppose.) On the other hand, I went home thinking about the sex offender registry and how people might move on after this kind of abuse. So maybe even though I didn’t have fun watching it, it was a thought-provoking and worthwhile play, full of shades of gray. But I have to admit I preferred Spotlight, which is far more black and white in its treatment of pedophilia.

My Grade: C+
Running Time: 90 minutes
Ticket price: $45 (TDF)
Worth it: Iffy
Standing Ovation Watch: In the orchestra