By David Harrower
Directed by David Muse
Produced by Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Leslie Weisman
There’s a new kid on the block, and he’s taken up residence with what promises to be one of the neighborhood’s most satisfyingly, yet disturbingly quirky families: the new Milton Series, housed in the bird’s nest of Studio’s intimate Milton Theatre. The Milton’s location is entirely appropriate to David Harrower’s harrowing Blackbird. This one-act, (essentially) two-person trek through the gnarled jungle-undergrowth of the human heart, psyche, and conscience comes to us bearing an impressive pedigree. A hit at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival and winner of last year’s Laurence Olivier Award for best new play, Blackbird earned its stateside wings last spring in an extended run at New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club.
From the get-go, we both know – and don’t know – where we are. The stage is set with a confusing mixture of simplicity and chaos. A trash receptacle overflows with the aftermath of office work, coffee breaks and eat-ins; three white tables are flanked by steel-gray chairs, all pretty much in place, with the exception of an orphan, jettisoned downstage left, imploringly – or is it defiantly? – facing the audience.
Ray (Jerry Whiddon), a sixtyish functionary working late in his colorless cubicle, answers the door to find standing before him an unwelcome guest – whom he soon dubs a “ghost” – from the nether reaches of his otherwise colorless past. It is Una (Lisa Joyce), whose relationship with the angry and clearly shaken Ray will form the nexus of the play, and which, by play’s end, will cause all but the most absolute in their convictions to give them another, if only a glancing, examination.
Ray is clearly upset that Una is here and tells her to leave, which she is equally determined not to do. As they play the adult equivalent of yes-no-yes-no, you-no-you, you-no-you, he challenges her to prove that she’s really who he thinks – and as we come to realize, what’s more important, who he fears – she is. It has been, after all, more than a decade since their last encounter.
Her reply, ominously quiet, drops like a dead weight packed with explosives: “How many other 12-year-olds have you had sex with?”
After that bombshell, the intensity of their encounter builds slowly, the two of them circling each other like a pair of jungle cats. Whiddon’s pacing is effective as Ray alternates between guilty hesitation and blurting self-justification, desperately seeking to stay away from remembrance of things past that remain, to his continued torment, both financially and emotionally unburied. Joyce matches him in intensity, her Una visibly torn between a need for him to recognize and validate her pain, and an equally strong need not to find a closure that would invalidate the happiness she remembers. Yet all is not black and white, as the dominant grays of the set seems to suggest.
The play itself progresses and regresses, its timeline shifting in accord with its characters’ rapidly changing moods, depending on who’s dredging up (or fondly recalling) which memories to make a point, or to goad, embarrass, or warmly engage the other. We learn that, driven by spiteful jealousy, Uma would write nasty notes to Ray’s girlfriend and leave them under his windshield, and do other things that, in hindsight, she now acknowledges must have made her seem almost a poster child for classic-preteen-crush. But if she was Lolita, he was an all-too-willing Humbert, whom she at one point tearfully and angrily reproaches for having encouraged her instead of sending her on her way.
And as our hackles are rising in sympathy for the outraged, payback-seeking young woman whose life was ruined – ridiculed and rejected by friends and schoolmates, pariah and object lesson for their parents and for her parents’ friends, her childhood and youth irrevocably lost – he gently, and with a sense of quiet amazement, tells her that she surprised him: “You knew more about love than [his girlfriend] did, more than I did.” And she in turn recalls the joy and pride she felt when they would meet in the park, and knew that he was hers, and she was his. Ah, the inexpressible ecstasy of adolescent amour! The play truly breathes here, as both Joyce and Whiddon slow down long enough to savor the words and the emotions.
This was, it should be noted, not always the case. To be sure, rapidity can be an exercise in verisimilitude. But it can also be an exercise in attempted verisimilitude gone off-track. As in one or two other Studio productions I’ve seen in recent years, the actors at times speak too quickly – perhaps trying to approximate the way we all talk in daily life. But on stage, it sometimes comes not just at the expense of clarity and comprehension, but at the cost of dramatic tension. And in this play, which has such potentially earth-shaking, belief-changing implications, you want – and need – to savor every moment.
And when Blackbird‘s at its best, you will certainly do that. This is one you’ll be thinking about, and talking about, long after the coffee cups are cleared.
Running Time: 80 min. (no intermission)
When: December 3-21 , Wednesday-Sunday at 7:30; matinees, Saturday and Sunday at 2:30; Tuesday, December 16 at 7:30
Where: The Studio Theatre in the Milton Theatre, 1501 – 14th Street NW, Washington, DC
Tickets: $41-$45 Call 202-332-3300 or visit the website.