David Harrower’s Blackbird offers no such comforts, only blunt observations about the ways we lie to ourselves, justify ourselves, revise our stories and recompose our masks when the truth of what’s under our skins simply can’t be borne.
Much-praised in New York and London for its complicated portrait of a damaged young woman and the man who sexually abused her more than a decade before, the play makes its Washington-era debut at the Studio Theatre, where David Muse’s staging makes it seem oddly…well, bearable.
Maybe it’s that Jerry Whiddon (the fine D.C-based actor and former artistic director at Round House Theatre) and Lisa Joyce (a Helen Hayes nominee not long ago for her work as the conflicted young nun caught between two warring superiors in the national tour of Doubt) haven’t yet gotten deep enough into the subtext that might explain the halting, broken exchanges that tumble out of their characters’ mouths in the play’s first hurried minutes. The dialogue, with its fits and its starts and its restarts and its dead ends, owes a debt to Pinter and Mamet, which is to say that what’s not said is crucial—but even at the end of the show’s 75 mostly efficient minutes, with the benefit of hindsight, I’m not sure I can tell you why they sputter and circle quite so much. The action may start with a slammed door and two angry antagonists, but it takes a seeming eternity for Blackbird to get going.
Or maybe it’s that, a few years after Edward Albee’s The Goat made an eloquent argument that love can be pure, can be deeply felt, and yet still be tragically, damagingly out of bounds, Harrower’s scenario doesn’t have quite as much power to shock.
Because yes, just as you expect, what plays out on Debra Booth’s convincingly grimy office-canteen set is less a confrontation than a kind of coming to terms: Yes, Joyce’s Una wants to know if Whiddon’s Ray has felt her kind of hurt, but she also wants to know if he still feels for her. Ray, for his part, has spent a decade and a half learning that the urges that drove him on back then were unspeakable—and now he’s being called on to contemplate the possibility that now, with Una resurfacing, he might be able to indulge them again.
“Am I too old for you?” Una asks, desperately, toward the end of the evening, and the question somehow seems both appalling and inevitable. Appalling for obvious reasons; inevitable, let’s say, not because Harrower’s story is itself predictable but because Joyce’s performance has a bracing sort of clarity. What you see coming, you see illuminated by the crazy light in her eyes.
Whiddon, too, warms to his part after that curiously flat opening stretch, and both actors manage to make walls and theater seats disappear in a matched set of masterfully built soliloquies that form the play’s dark heart.
But its denouement is inevitable still—and when you see an awful thing headed your way, it’s easier perhaps to brace yourself. I wanted to care more about Una, and about Ray, too, and to be shaken by the implications of what I knew they were about to say to each other. But I wasn’t, and I didn’t, and on that same grim winter Sunday, with the prospect of Shakespeare still to come in the evening, it was simple enough to shake off their story and step back into the cold.