Gamblers know that the higher the risk, the greater the drama. So do playwrights, and on the explosive evidence of the magnetically watchable “Blackbird,” David Harrower knows it better than most. His subject matter couldn’t be riskier: 56-year-old Ray is quietly going about his mundane job with a pharmaceutical manufacturer when in walks Una. They haven’t laid eyes on each other since the end of their sexual relationship 15 years ago. If that suggests misty-eyed reveries of first love, think again. Back then, he was 41 and she was 12.
The horror of child abuse is now far from a taboo theatrical subject. But most dramatists manage to use it as, at worst, a device for last-minute character revelation or, at best, a means to apportion simple blame or re-rehearse guilt. Harrower’s triumph is to render the topic in almost bewilderingly compassionate terms, without recourse to easy get-outs. This high-stakes thriller never stoops to emotionally dishonest plot twists.
Harrower sets the bar high by unfolding the action in real time. The play runs as if in one continuous two-hour take. Until the final minute, the writer never allows himself the luxury of a cut-away to a different perspective.
Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive” offered the audience a range of viewpoints on abusive sex via separate scenes of audience address. There is none of that here; just the locked horns of two people frighteningly determined to eviscerate the heart of the matter.
From the arresting opening of Peter Stein’s minutely calibrated production, in which Roger Allam’s shambling Ray drags febrile Una (Jodhi May) into the litter-strewn, shabbily anodyne staff room, the entire production lassoes the audience.
What makes the writing so immediately impressive is Harrower’s control of what is not being said. As in the best of Pinter, every silence packs such a dramatic punch that the audience remains shockingly still. The dialogue is pared down and fractured — there’s barely a complete sentence in the play — and early on the words seem utterly inconsequential.
Meanwhile, the actors’ aggressive yet self-protective body language indicates the dangerous current between them. They prowl and circle each other like a pair of fantastically alert boxers, with a shared sense of fear that floods the auditorium. The tension is precisely indicated by Ray’s insistence that the door remain ajar. He wants an escape route.
Stein’s production cranks the heat up still further by letting us see the faces of unidentified people walking along a corridor outside. At any moment they could be interrupted or, worse, overheard.
As swiftly becomes clear, this is no one-sided drama of confrontation and empowerment. The interrogation is mutual. Una has tracked Ray down after 15 years. She is trapped by the experience while he has survived a prison sentence and, under a new name, created a new life with a woman slightly older than he.
Both unwillingly reveal a consuming need to understand their dilemma. After years of silence, they are overtaken by the overwhelming desire to hear and speak the truth, at whatever cost, with the only person who has the answers.
Together with the precision and power of both actors, who weld themselves to the text, much of the evening’s tension stems from the aud being pulled simultaneously in two directions, past and present. We want to discover what really happened back then while desperate to learn the outcome and price of this confrontation for them both.
In truth, “Blackbird” is no more “about pedophilia” than “Proof” was “about mathematics.” Without condoning pedophilia, it evokes shocking compassion by revealing the relationship to be about irreconcilable, obsessive love. Stein’s somber, scrupulously responsible production makes this manifest in a final coup, not included in the published text.
That coda comes hot on the heels of the shocking climax. Just when the aud has become reconciled to the awful tenderness between Ray and Una, Harrower pulls the rug out from beneath one’s expectations with a revelation that makes the audience recoil. Might everything we have seen, heard and felt about his reformed behavior be a lie?
Some of Stein’s deliberate, slow pacing lurches toward self-consciousness. But that’s a small price to pay for performances and text of this caliber. As with last year’s “Festen” — a now Broadway-bound play about incest — “Blackbird” proves that integrity can turn intimidating, inflammatory subject matter into spellbinding theater.