Was it love — or was it statutory rape? That’s the loaded question at the heart of Scottish playwright David Harrower’s profoundly unsettling drama, “Blackbird,” which launched at the Edinburgh Festival in 2005 and had its first American production two years later. Now on Broadway under Joe Mantello’s technically immaculate (if overindulgent) direction, Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams play the two deeply troubled lovers (or is it predator and victim?) who meet again, 15 years after their affair (or is it crime?) was abruptly terminated.
When we first lay eyes on him — in the grim and grubby break room of the soulless corporate offices designed by Scott Pask and heartlessly lighted by Brian MacDevitt — Ray (Daniels), a 50-ish middle manager in a pharmaceutical firm, looks like a man who has come face to face with a ghost. That’s actually a sound description of Una (Williams), his unwanted visitor. Although the skinny little thing, who is in her mid-20s, looks no more threatening than a mouse in her flimsy dress and bare legs, she has Ray, a hulking man who is twice her size, cowering in fear just being in the same room with her.
It was Mantello’s directorial choice to go big with the emotions in this first scene, which heightens the drama but also pitches the passion so high that the actors can only take it up… and up… to the edge of hysteria.
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The initial dialogue is negligible, but crackling with meaningful undercurrents and heightened David Mamet-like tension, as well as Mamet-like themes and vocal rhythms. (“Don’t people have homes?” / “Homes?” / “Outside” / “I don’t” / “To go to” / “Homes to go to.”) There’s a story embedded in these mannered exchanges, and the playwright teases it out gradually, drawing out the pain. And the story of sexual obsession that emerges is ugly, indeed.
When Una was 12 years old, she and her 40-year-old neighbor (whose name wasn’t Ray at the time) had a brief, forbidden relationship that they both romanticized as a love affair, but which the law unsentimentally defined as statutory rape. Ray went to prison for three and a half years, and it took all the guts he had left when he got out to forge himself a new life in the anonymous corporate world where obscurity is actually a virtue.
Coming face to face with his past unhinges Ray, but empowers Una to unleash all the rage (“I wanted to pull out your eyes”) she’s been bottling up for so long. (In an otherwise carefully constructed narrative, it’s a mystery why she waited so long to confront her seducer.)
But after a while, this one-way harangue turns into a more subtle cat-and-mouse game in which the power base keeps shifting. Both Daniels (who holds a Best Actor Emmy for “The Newsroom”) and Williams (who earned her Golden Globe Award for “My Week with Marilyn”) become more physically invested in the battle and more drawn to one another. They stalk each other with growing need and heightened urgency, circling the table that defines their separate territories, alternately attacking and retreating like animals in heat.
While it may be obvious where this is going, it’s still unnerving to watch these two go at it. Too unnerving, actually, because by this time, both performances, fiercely committed and complicated as they are, have gone way over the top. But even at this high decibel level, the disturbing substance of the play makes it riveting.
Both the legal and moral issues seem clear enough — a man in his 40s who initiates a sexual relationship with a 12-year-old child is a pedophile and his association with her constitutes child abuse. Period. But Ray and Una shrink from those definitions, declaring themselves lovers. And as it turns out, Una wasn’t even furious with Ray for seducing her, but for deserting her when they were discovered. To further complicate matters, even the judge assigned to the case acknowledged Una’s precocious maturity and “suspiciously adult yearnings.”
There’s hell to pay in the final moments of the play, which leaves dangling the question of whether Ray’s attraction to Una was a one-time thing, as he insists, or whether he has always had — and continues to have — a secret yen for nubile girls. But in the end, moral ambiguity trumps intellectual justification.