While “two losers in love” is popular with modern playwrights, Blackbird may be the bleakest example of the genre around. The Barrelhouse Theatre production of Adam Rapp’s play offers an interesting character sketch of a down in the dumps couple in a raw setting, but this tale of human misery only allows for sporadic moments of endearing personal connection.
Baylis (Tony Bullock) is a veteran of the first Gulf War who suffers from a severe back injury that has left him incontinent (forced to wear adult diapers), impotent, and perpetually irritable. Froggy (Julie Roundtree) is a young drug addict that Baylis met when she was working as a stripper. Now they share a dysfunctional, codependent relationship living in a squalid New York City apartment barely surviving on his disability checks.
The play is set on Christmas Eve (symbolism alert!). Baylis has become a caretaker for Froggy despite the fact that she seems to enjoy teasing him with crude nicknames when not repeatedly trying to cajole more heroin out of him. As she sees it, she’s not an addict since she only snorts the heroin instead of shooting it.
These are two broken people in a dumpy, depressing, and claustrophobic setting. The television is broken and the only small window is broken after Baylis tries to drive away the blackbird that frequently taps away.
When Baylis is not watching out for Froggy, he’s prone to striking out in frustration, kicking a TV set, getting into a bar fight, or verbally lashing out about society in general. In contrast, Froggy is a surprisingly light-hearted person who finds humor where you’d least expect it. You could dub the pair “Grumpy and Giggly.”
Tony Bullock gives a nicely committed performance as Baylis, accessing his pain and his reluctant love with equal finesse. While Julie Roundtree gives a cherubic charm to Froggy, her portrayal is less nuanced and at times is too consistently cutesy.
Director Gabriel Swee seems attuned to Rapp’s rhythms and manages to make the beats in the story varied enough to keep the audience engaged.
Adam Rapp is a skilled and observant writer, who shows us he’s capable of engaging dialogue with occasional welcome moments of bleak humor. While he lays on the miseries a little thickly, he does gradually give the two characters an oddly endearing connection.
While the characters are sharply drawn and their relationship slowly becomes more interesting, Blackbird seems too much like a playwright’s exercise (write a two-hander about a relationship between two drug addicts).
Blackbird marks the debut of Barrelhouse Theatre. The play runs thru Mar 18, 2012 at DC Arts Center, 2438 18th Street NW Washington, DC.
Details and tickets
Written by Adam Rapp
Directed by Gabriel Swee
Produced by The Barrelhouse Theatre
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (no intermission)