EmptyManhattan Theatre Club, Stage I, New York
Through June 3
Trailing ecstatic London reviews and the 2007 Laurence Olivier Award for best new play, British dramatist David Harrower's "Blackbird" has opened at off-Broadway's Manhattan Theatre Club. Perhaps MTC should also have imported the Brit cast and director. As staged by Joe Mantello ("Three Days of Rain") and performed by Jeff Daniels and Alison Pill ("Pieces of April"), this drama about an affair between a 40-year-old man and a 12-year-old girl falls far short of its transatlantic hype.
Fifteen years have gone by since Ray (Daniels) was arrested for supposedly molesting Una (Pill). Since then, Ray has served time in prison, moved to another city, changed his name and found work, which is where Una tracks him down. In a sterile room enclosed by opaque glass windows, where the only furniture is a massive white table covered with the remains of the (absent) staff's lunch, Ray and Una confront each other, reliving the pleasure and pain of their relationship and the debacle that ended it.
Or anyway, "reliving" is probably the dramatist's intention. Written in annoying, pretentiously broken and unfinished sentences, and with lengthy monologues, the 90-minute "Blackbird" (as in the Beatles' lyric?) is more an account of an affair than a dramatization. One can't help but compare it to the similarly themed but richer "How I Learned to Drive," in which playwright Paula Vogel shows the seduction instead of telling about it. Harrower keeps communicating that this is a potentially "shocking" story, while Vogel just wanted to show human beings behaving in understandable, if disturbing, ways.
Still, even as written, "Blackbird" has room for more dramatic tension than Mantello elicits from his cast. More fear and desperation from Daniels' slightly paunchy Ray, who, after all, could lose his job and newfound life. And more sexual electricity from both because Pill's Una -- despite four-inch heels and a clingy red dress -- looks like an alluring 14-year-old, and the words, as well as a momentary attempt at sex, suggest that there is still plenty of attraction between the two. Except for one moment when Una re-experiences Ray abandoning her 15 years earlier, the actors exude an odd remoteness from both the story and each other.
Perhaps Daniels and Pill were stymied by the artificial and stiff writing or by having to negotiate around that enormous white table. Or maybe it was the thought of living up to all those rave British reviews.
Michael Edwards and Carole Winter
Playwright: David Harrower
Director: Joe Mantello
Set designer: Scott Pask
Costume designer: Laura Bauer
Lighting designer: Paul Gallo
Sound designer: Darron L. West
Ray: Jeff Daniels
Una: Alison Pill