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Fretts on Broadway: “Blackbird”

March 10, 2016

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I’m not as much of a theatergoer as I’d like to be able to afford to be, but when I saw that two of my favorite actors — Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams — were starring in a show, Blackbird, that won the Olivier Award for Best Play in London, I sprang for (cheap balcony) seats. Turns out it would’ve been worthwhile at twice the price.

Daniels and Williams are a study in contrasts: He’s male, she’s female. He’s old-ish, she’s young-ish. He’s physically imposing; she possesses the physique of a hurt bird. Hence the title, which is never explained, but seems like a reference to the Beatles tune: “Blackbird singing in the dead of night/take these broken wings and learn to fly/all your life/you were only waiting for this moment to arrive.”

In this case, that moment is when The Woman (Williams), who’s never named, tracks down Ray—or is his name Peter? (Daniels)—years after they had a sex… when she was 12. OK, Blackbird is a dark tale, but the aptly named David Harrower’s  90-minute one-act remains electrically entertaining even as it creeps you out.

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Ever since his breakout role in 1983’s Terms of Endearment as Debra Winger’s unfaithful husband Flap, Daniels has excelled at playing assholes, including his narcissistic novelist in The Squid and the Whale as well as his cellphone-addict lawyer in Broadway’s God of Carnage and his Keith Olbermann-esque anchorman in The Newsroom. He finds new shades of sketchiness as Ray/Peter, who’s alternately terrified and titillated by the return of his no-longer-underage paramour.

While Daniels maintains a consistent Everyguy persona (or facade) in all of his roles, Williams is a true chameleon, whether she’s morphing into Marilyn Monroe or a gay cowboy’s cock-olded wife in Brokeback Mountain. She’s scary good as The Woman, teetering on skinny (bird?) legs and adopting a throaty voice well-suited to derisive laughter as well as plaintive wails, both directed at her abuser.

As directed by the great actor Joe Mantello, Blackbird plays like a cross between David Mamet’s Oleanna and Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love. The dialogue is staccato, yet it has a halting rhythm all its own (at first, I thought Williams and Daniels were grasping for their lines until I picked up on Harrower’s herky-jerky beat). For a story that takes place all in one space — a garbage-strewn “break room” at a dental company’s office — the action gets impressively physical. Ray/Peter fruitlessly tries to clean up the detritus left behind by his co-workers (a perhaps too-easy metaphor for the mess he’s made of his and The Woman’s lives) and the duo’s verbal wrestling match turns shockingly tangible.

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A film version of Blackbird, retitled Una, will be released later this year, with Rooney Mara and Ben Mendehlson taking the lead roles. They’re certainly formidable actors, but it’s hard to imagine anyone playing these parts better than Williams and Daniels. Even with their characters’ broken wings, they make Blackbird sing and soar.

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