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It was nine years ago when Jeff Daniels first appeared in Joe Mantello’s taut production of Scottish playwright David Harrower’s volatile two-hander, Blackbird. Revisiting the play with the same director on Broadway opposite a sensational Michelle Williams, the actor now brings a noticeably deepened middle-aged gravitas that adds fascinating layers to his character — of bitter defensiveness, corrosive dishonesty, subjugated desire and, ultimately, ice-cold fear. Unyielding in its needling focus, this riveting drama is a stark examination of love, pain and loss that’s both compassionate and unforgiving, all of which helps it navigate the move to a bigger stage with a corresponding amplification of its emotional power.
Blackbird premiered at the 2005 Edinburgh Festival and then moved to London’s West End the following year, winning the Olivier Award for best new play. Mantello staged it off-Broadway for Manhattan Theater Club starring Daniels and Alison Pill in 2007, and Harrower has since adapted it for the screen. Directed by Benedict Andrews, the film, titled Una and starring Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn, is expected to premiere this year.
Una is the name of the character played by Williams, first seen being hustled by Daniels’ fuming Ray along an office corridor and into a messy staff lunchroom while Scott Pask’s set, a grim facsimile of soul-sucking corporate sterility, spins into place. The charged urgency and agitation of that opening makes it clear from the outset that Una’s visit to Ray’s workplace, where he goes by Peter, is neither expected nor welcome. Some may question Mantello’s choice to start at a near-hysterical pitch, but either way, his skill at maintaining that intensity is impressive.
Wearing a short, wispy dress and heels (Ann Roth did the costumes), Una at first appears poised, deceptively sure of herself. A hint of aggression colors her flirtatious mockery. Ray is red-faced and angry, not to mention extremely guarded, his jumpiness fed by the proximity of co-workers passing like blurred specters behind the opaque glass windows. She seems to enjoy his discomfort, taking mild digs at his vanity by pointing out how he’s aged since they last met, and interpreting his schlubby appearance in a baggy office shirt and ill-fitting trousers as evidence that he’s mid-level management at best.
Via fragments of information embedded in short bursts of jagged dialogue, Harrower swiftly reveals the cause of the tense dynamic. Ray and Una had a furtive relationship 15 years earlier, when he was 40 and she was just 12, for which he served prison time for abuse and abduction of a minor. She has tracked him down through a photo in a trade magazine. Paranoid and panicked, Ray tries to keep the lunchroom table between them to maintain physical distance as he struggles to understand what she now wants from him.
That’s basically the play. But by putting himself inside the heads of his two characters, Harrower uncovers a tangled spectrum of emotion behind their wary facades, along with a sea of uncertainty separating the black and white perceptions of guilt and innocence, seduction and surrender that shape our understanding of sexual abuse.
Ray has struggled to rehabilitate himself, forging a new identity to hide behind. “Those sick bastards. I was never one of them,” he self-righteously tells Una — and himself. But when subjected to the taunting interrogation of this empowered Lolita, his nervous babbling makes it obvious that he’s still on trial and likely always will be. In Ray’s mind, Una’s visit is an invasive assault that makes him the violated one.
Una is also in hiding, performing the role of a whole person. Williams incorporates that element of artifice into a wrenching characterization that provides ever-expanding windows to the vulnerable mess beneath the toughened exterior.
Over the course of the play’s uninterrupted 80 minutes, the characters’ outer shells crumble, revealing the raw hurt of longing, abandonment, betrayal and terrifying weakness. Their wounds are still fresh, festering away beneath the surface. This becomes clear above all in shattering twin monologues, in which first Una and then Ray relive the circumstances that brought them together and the events of an ill-planned flight that ended the illegal tryst — if not with any sense of closure.
As Brian MacDevitt’s lighting dims from penetrating glare to somber isolation, accompanied by the loudening hum of Fitz Patton’s sound design, Una, in particular is revealed to be a tragic figure, still trapped in the psyche of a confused little girl.
Harrower’s writing has its studied aspects, from the clipped, nervously evasive dialogue of the early exchanges to the tidy juxtaposition of the monologues that strip both characters bare. But Mantello — on a roll after his meticulously nuanced work on The Humans — and his remarkable actors give this slow-burning, real-time drama fluidity and searing emotional heat. Chipping away at our preconceptions while forcing Ray and Una into inescapable corners of darkest self-knowledge, the play packs a visceral punch.
Venue: Belasco Theatre, New York
Cast: Jeff Daniels, Michelle Williams
Director: Joe Mantello
Playwright: David Harrower
Set designer: Scott Pask
Costume designer: Ann Roth
Lighting designer: Brian MacDevitt
Sound designer: Fitz Patton
Executive producers: Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, John Johnson
Presented by Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, Roger Berlind, William Berlind, Scott M. Delman, Peter May, Jon B. Platt, Len Blavatnik, Tulchin Bartner Productions, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, Wendy Federman, Stacey Mindich
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