It turns out there is a place more uncomfortable to be on Broadway than a bullet-ridden hut watching sex slaves try to preserve their humanity. That would be among the audience watching the harrowing — and absolutely brilliant — revival of “Blackbird.”
David Harrower’s play is so intimate and emotional and charged that it makes “Eclipsed” seem like a comedy in comparison. It’s also impossible to stop watching because both characters are fully realized and equally sympathetic.
That’s hard to do, since one is a woman who was sexually abused 15 years ago when she was 12 and the other is the man, who at 40, was the one who seduced her. It is a rich stew of anger and shame and love that opened recently at Broadway's Belasco Theatre.
Michelle Williams plays the spiky, vengeful and still-broken victim, and Jeff Daniels is the stressed-out, humiliated one-time aggressor. With this indisputably superb cast, the play ducks and weaves enough to take your breath away under Joe Mantello’s taut direction.
The woman arrives unannounced during closing time at her former abuser’s place of employment, a nondescript modern, soulless office. He has served prison time, changed his name and has started a new life, even becoming involved with a woman his own age.
Daniels plays the man suddenly made raw, slightly bowed and disheveled as he is reminded of his horrific past. In her presence, he fights the reemergence of tics and is absent-mindedly obsessed with picking up the litter in the break room where they meet, as if he could make everything clean again.
There is also harshness to Daniels’ character, and he goes to the edge of violence to try to get out of having this confrontation, here and now. He’s protective of the new life he created and suspicious of his visitor’s motives. He even rifles though her bag to see if she’s got a weapon.
“I didn’t agree to this,” he says.
“I lost more than you ever did,” she replies.
While the play’s topic might initially put some off, this cast makes the spare and human dialogue soar. These are two actors at the top of their game, holding back nothing. At a recent preview, the audience was absolutely rapt, the theater silent. It gets so intimate you might be embarrassed to be so close.
Williams arrives for the confrontation in a girlish dress and high heels and a burning anger. She wants admissions and details and, above all, an explanation. “I hate the life I’ve had,” she tells him.
She toys with Daniel’s character at first, aware that he is under pressure by the presence of co-workers, who ghostly walk past the frosted windows. Phones bleat all the time, adding to the stress. Soon, she reveals the longing in her hurt and her own culpability in the relationship. It is an utterly heartbreaking performance.
In one beautifully realized moment, Williams delivers her 12-year-old version of events in a monologue that spills out like poetry as the office’s neon lights darken save for one illuminated square above her (Brian MacDevitt did the perfect lighting). In another splendid scene, the two actors unleash their frustrations on the room (Scott Pask did the spot-on scenic design).
By the end, it’s clear this is not a battle about the past as much as the future. Can the woman even find peace and move on? Can the man show he has changed? Will the past always rule us forever?
On Broadway …