Rarely are a play’s themes so precisely echoed in its exit music as in Joe Mantello’s production of “Blackbird.” When vocalist Lisa Hannigan sings the lyric “Is that alright with you?” in Irish neo-folk star Damien Rice’s “9 Crimes,” the haunting song’s confronting appeal resonates with the sting of abandonment and betrayal. David Harrower’s unsettling drama does the same with greater self-consciousness. But the thorny performances of Jeff Daniels and Alison Pill in this two-hander fortify the playwright’s illustration of how guilt and innocence can resist clean attribution.
First produced in Harrower’s native Scotland at the 2005 Edinburgh Festival and then in London’s West End the following year, “Blackbird” won the 2007 Olivier Award for new play.
The drama reveals a strong debt to David Mamet’s “Oleanna,” particularly in the mannered, nervously clipped dialogue of the opening, in which fiftyish Ray (Daniels) and twentysomething Una (Pill) burst angrily into the staff lunchroom of Scott Pask’s perfect replica of a sterile office as it spins into view. The 1992 play is evoked in Harrower’s volatile faceoff between two people dealing with a past sexual transgression, though the psychological scarring explored here cuts deeper than the political correctness targeted in “Oleanna.”
Harrower’s play no less distinctly recalls Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” with the fundamental difference that unlike Humbert Humbert, Ray even to himself denies his attraction to preadolescent girls. With self-righteous conviction, he claims his sexual relationship with Una more than 10 years earlier — he was 40, she was 12 — was a once-only aberration.
While it ultimately doesn’t achieve the psychological clarity to fully illuminate the moral morass it uncovers, “Blackbird” is a dark, dangerous love story in which the past casts an unhealthy shadow.
The drama is set up like a revenge thriller. Mantello fuels this suggestion by making Una coolly antagonistic through the opening stretch while keeping Ray hostile, furtive and defensive. Daniels separates himself from Pill whenever possible by staying on the opposite side of the table, strewn with the debris of vending-machine snacks. It’s almost as if he’s physically intimidated by the wisp of a girl though he’s twice her size.
It emerges that Ray has changed his name and reinvented himself as a low-level pharmaceutical plant manager after serving three years for molesting and abducting a minor. He’s also in a seemingly stable relationship with an older woman. Ray is anxious to put the experience behind him, preferring to pretend it never happened, while Una has tracked him down to deal with unfinished business.
As the writer’s staccato language eventually becomes secondary to character conflicts and tension, the play grows more bracingly charged and fluid. The actors negotiate their characters’ many shifts with subtlety, challenging standard definitions of victim and aggressor. They peel back layers as the development of the illicit attraction between them is recalled. Control bounces back and forth between them as the events of a night in which they ran away together to a guesthouse are detailed, followed by Ray’s flight and subsequent trial.
The use of consecutive monologues is a little schematic in outlining their counterpoint recollections of the tryst and its lingering fallout, but it succeeds in ratcheting up the intensity. Paul Gallo’s unforgivingly antiseptic office lighting dims and isolates the two actors as it becomes clear the forces that pulled these two damaged people together are still in place.
Aptly described by Ray as a ghost, Pill’s Una disappears into her still-raw memories. While her overwritten monologue is more like first-person prose than speech, the actress makes it work. She bristles with hurt and is increasingly affecting as she suggests that Una is not looking for closure or culpability but continuation. The conflicting realities of abused children who feel responsible for the experience, are stigmatized by it or who cling to it as something that made them feel special are distressingly evident in the character.
Physical casting of both actors is sharp. With her doll-like features and high, serious forehead, Pill (“The Lieutenant of Inishmore”) appears both child and adult, costumed by Laura Bauer in the slinky little dress of a sensual coquette and the awkward high heels of a little girl playing in her mother’s shoes. While seduction may now be part of Una’s barely formed plan, she’s still a desperate child.
In films like “Terms of Endearment” and the underappreciated gem “The Squid and the Whale,” Daniels’ big-blond-lug wholesomeness has been smartly used to contrast his characters’ questionable behavior. That same double edge is employed here to great effect.
Ray is a shlubby everyman, initially embarrassed for Una to see the ordinariness of his situation and his cheap, style-free clothes. Bringing a seemingly effortless realism to his difficult role, Daniels keeps a judicious ceiling on the conscious extent of Ray’s dishonesty as he rationalizes his behavior, apportioning some of the blame to Una’s unusual maturity for a 12-year-old. But by the time he gets to the banal inevitability of “I never wanted to hurt you,” the chilling suggestion has surfaced that Ray may still be prey to the same desires. Daniels plays the final scenes with superb control, maintaining ambiguity even as the playwright tips his hand via the brief, forced introduction of an unbilled third character.
Mantello makes deft use of Pask’s set, with Ray’s office colleagues occasionally glimpsed through the lunchroom’s frosted glass windows. That thin separation from the eyes of the outside world is crucial to Harrower’s slow-burning drama, which is less about pedophilia — a word never spoken — than about our own uneasy perceptions regarding abusive relationships.