The first word spoken in David Harrower’s Blackbird is “shock,” and the superb production that opens on Broadway tonight wastes no time in justifying it. Not so much in speech; the next nine words are “of course,” “yes,” “now”, “and,” “wait,” and “you were busy,” which on the page is incomprehensible. But the director Joe Mantello’s staging quickly throws the audience into the middle of a nightmare whose contours are clear enough. Jeff Daniels, bull-faced and furious, drags the twiglike Michelle Williams into the grim gray break room of a grim gray office. They clearly have some sort of history he does not want his co-workers — dim figures behind frosted glass — to know about; just as clearly, she wants to be noticed. Tottering on high metallic heels, she is dressed in a very short, sheer, and girlish print dress (by Ann Roth) that is making a very dangerous point.
Daniels plays Ray, who is 55; Williams plays Una, who is 27. Fifteen years before the action of the play, they had a three-month sexual relationship. You do the math. But this horrifying information, divulged early on, is just the setup, for this is not a tract or a brief that sticks to the conventional line of inquiry informing most discussions of pedophilia and sex abuse. The fact of the crime, for which Ray served a relatively short sentence of three years and seven months, is not, onstage, the end of the story. Without in any way glamorizing the situation, Blackbird so complicates the questions of consent and trauma and recovery — and even love — that it would be difficult to look at any of these subjects the same way again.
Some of that complication is decidedly “incorrect.” Una is a victim, yes: She says that she has served a 15-year sentence for Ray’s crime. Still, she is not so clearly innocent. As played with devastating rawness by Williams, she is alternately viperish, vengeful, sarcastic, bizarre, and desperate to reconnect. (She has tracked Ray down in a new life in a distant town.) When she reports that the judge in the criminal trial said she’d harbored “suspiciously adult yearnings,” we cringe at the inappropriateness of the remark; yet Harrower has made it clear, and Williams makes it believable, that Una vigorously pursued the relationship and was thrilled to have received the sexual attention of a grown man. By her own account, as related in a stunning 12-minute monologue two-thirds of the way through the 80-minute play, she loved everything about what happened between them until he abandoned her and the law took over.
Similarly, Ray is drawn as richly and provocatively as possible, getting as far from ambient stereotypes about the pedophile personality as can reasonably be achieved. At first merely terrified of losing the new life he has painstakingly clawed from the ruins of his old one, he quickly grows more complicated and sympathetic. He admits his guilt. He agrees that Una, as a 12-year-old, could not meaningfully consent. He explains, convincingly, why he disappeared. And though Harrower does not entirely rob him of qualities that make his former behavior believable — inviting Una for a drink does not, for instance, inspire confidence in his full recovery — Daniels goes so deep into the man’s depravity that he seems to come out the other side, in a place of honesty. You believe him, almost against your will, when he says that what happened between him and Una was not the habitual expression of an ongoing predilection but a specific, one-time irrational act: He fell in love. Blackbird is brave enough in its unblinking look at real human complexity to offer this admission — however horrible it may seem to us — as something that Una finds helpful. It may even be why she came.
Daniels, who played Ray in the play’s 2007 American premiere, at Manhattan Theater Club’s Off Broadway space beneath City Center, has not merely redecorated his earlier performance but done a gut job on it, starting over on deeper foundations. It cannot have been easy to produce so fully rounded a performance from within the narrow perspective Ray can allow himself. But that limitation becomes a source of immense emotional power for Daniels, without which the play would likely tip over. Williams does something similar from the other side of the spectrum. Though she is much older than the terrific Alison Pill was in the 2007 production, she comes across as younger, and more fragile: less a 27-year-old than a 12-year-old’s imaginary version of one. Williams’s transparency is such that you take in both images, and many others, as a kind of flickering of the soul: terrifying, hard to square, but inarguably true.
The same could be said for Blackbird itself, which presumably takes its title from the darkly ambivalent Paul McCartney song. (“Blackbird singing in the dead of night / Take these broken wings and learn to fly.”) Certainly the production is terrifying, an effect due in part to the dead-on work of the designers. (Credit — in addition to Roth — Scott Pask, Brian MacDevitt, and Fitz Patton for the heart-sapping set, lights, and sound.) And it’s hard to think of another director besides Mantello who could so confidently package so much unprettied trauma within the big-box conventions of Broadway. As in his concurrent staging of The Humans, he makes the experience of empathy both horrific and exhilarating. But none of this would be possible, or worth doing, if Harrower hadn’t taken up in his writing the challenges that theater always lays before us: to abjure cant, take the wrong side, and say what can’t be said elsewhere without euphemism. The theater at its best as in Blackbird is one place where it is not only necessary but awesome to be awful.
Blackbird is at the Belasco Theatre through June 12.