Blackbird closed on the night before the Tony Awards ceremony, after an eighteen-week limited run on Broadway. But it’s been around for quite a while, and will undoubtedly continue to shock audiences for some time to come. David Harrower was originally commissioned to write it for the 2005 Edinburgh International Festival, and that immediately generated over 40 productions world-wide. Among them was a 2007 off-Broadway run at The Manhattan Theatre Club directed by Joe Mantello, with Jeff Daniels (Purple Rose of Cairo, The Squid and the Whale, etc.) and Alison Pill, who would go on to work together again in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom.
I missed that production, but as an avid Jeff Daniels fan (with the possible exception of the Dumb and Dumber excursions, which everybody else apparently loves). I wasn’t about to miss his first Broadway run since the 2009 production of Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage. He had played two roles at different times in that one, for the first of which he was also nominated for a Best Actor Tony, along with the rest of the original cast. And now, it seems Daniels just couldn’t let Blackbird go. Helmed again by Mantello, this time around he was paired with Michelle Williams as his nemesis.
Word of mouth and the initial reviews raved that Blackbird was perhaps the most intense play of the Broadway season, echoing the 2007 excitement over the play. It picked up three Tony nominations, one for each actor and one for Best Revival of a Play, in addition to the Olivier and other recognition it had earned abroad.
As almost everyone knows by now, Blackbird concerns one of modern civilization’s most abhorrent taboos. It is the story of Una, a twenty-seven year old woman who returns to confront the man who had seduced her when she was twelve years old. The two of them ran off together at the time. Ray was eventually caught, convicted and sent to prison. Fifteen years later, he has established a new identity and is comfortably settled in a steady office job … until Una tracks him down. A long and harrowing verbal duel ensues, in which excuses, pretensions, assumptions and some surprising reversals are revealed. It’s an embarrassing, complicated, difficult, and awkward path they must walk together. And at the same time, they must both somehow earn the sympathy of the audience, horrified by the subject but entranced by what is essentially a tragic love story. Not an easy task. Daniels claims it was the most difficult role he has ever undertaken.
Both performances were intense, and demanded a huge emotional investment. As Daniels has said in interviews, the play begins badly, and ends badly. During the curtain calls, etched into his face was a grim combination of exhaustion and loathing, along with his gratitude for the inevitable standing ovation. He is no stranger to awards and applause, but it was very evident that this play “got to him,” as it has to audiences everywhere, in a way that few others do.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that performances like these must originate in the minds of playwrights. Harrower based his play on the true story of Toby Studebaker, an American ex-marine who seduced and ran off with a 12 year-old British girl, and spent five years in prison, with an even longer sentence awaiting him in the U.S. But the Scottish playwright has converted a tawdry and sensationalist news story into a universal exploration into the baseness of human behavior and the “justifications” we invent to forgive ourselves. It’s quite a ride.
A side note: If you missed the play, hang on; I’m quite sure it will be a prime pick with regional theatres in the coming months. And the film version, renamed as Una, will be released later this year, with Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn playing Una and Ray.