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Blackbird, at MTC's Stage I

David Harrower's tightly-wound play, Blackbird, very cleverly postpones its exposition until it can serve as something in the nature of a climax. We know nothing about the man who has just shuffled a younger woman into an empty office canteen except that he is not happy to see her. For half an hour or so, Una and Ray spar angrily in brisk, Mametian outbursts. All that we really learn is that fifteen years ago, when Ray was forty and Una twelve, the two had some kind of sex. And we learn that Ray has served part of a seven-year sentence. But what, exactly, happened? Ray insists that he owes Una nothing, but Una implacably seeks something. Her life has been ruined by what happened. Ray's doesn't seem to be in great shape, either.

Then, with a pair of aria-like speeches that tell us exactly what happened, the air of angry confrontation and denial evaporates, and is replaced by something far more tender. And all I could think, as Ray and Una finally got to talk to each other, that the law is indeed an ass, and never moreso than where sexuality is concerned. By taking Una to bed and having intercourse with her, Ray raped and abused her, at least in the eyes of the law. But neither Ray nor Una was aware, at the time, of rape or abuse. They thought they were in love. It was a foolish love, and it was against the law to act on it. But Una more than acknowledges that she seduced Ray. She knew what she was doing, although she may not, thanks to her youth, have had much of a grasp of the long-term implications. The law often seeks to protect the young from unforeseen consequences. But it doesn't really know how.

I don't for a moment mean to condone underage sex. What to do when it comes to light, however, is a question that Blackbird throws into high relief. That, to my mind, is the real drama here, although I'm not sure if that was Mr Harrower's intention. His play makes it clear that what the law did it found out about Ray and Una constituted a form of abuse. Assumptions were made: Una must be the victim, Ray the predator. Discussions were mooted; explanations were withheld. Thanks to the law, Ray and Una each felt abandoned by the other, and has suffered that abandonment for fifteen years - for no good reason in the world. What threatens to be an agonizing confrontation becomes a sorrowful one.

Mr Harrower, then, begins with the assumptions, and lets us think that Una, having seen Ray's picture in a trade magazine in a doctor's office, has tracked him down to confront him personally with her immense damage. Ray defensively refuses to answer her vindictive questions at any length. We are made to share the characters' fear and shame, and we are prevented from taking sides. Then, when we're beginning to think about leaving the room, the assumptions are stripped away. No more victim, no more predator, just two misguided lovers on a reckless junket. Until the law stepped in, Ray and Una were doing all right.

Blackbird comes to MTC from Edinburgh and London, where the play won an Olivier. I expect that it could be translated into the language of any Western nation, and perhaps even Japanese, and work just as well. Two very ordinary people, in a drab, soulless office, a long-ago "sex offense," a need to move on - Blackbird could take place anywhere in the developed world. And I expect that it will. Under Joe Mantello's direction, Alison Pill and Jeff Daniels anchor the drama in Middle America. Miss Pill, who is very slight, can pass for twelve with the right lighting, and she conveys Una's unformed, stunted character with chilling efficiency. Mr Daniels is just as fine impersonating the ageing and rumpled Ray. The experience of sitting in on their first face-to-face meeting would be unbearable if it were not for the transformation wrought by the long recollections of the same distant night, which each has relived countless times. Scott Pask's set is bleakly naturalistic, and it makes a nice use of the turntable at the beginning of the show. Laura Bauer's costumes are extremely effective: Mr Daniel's shirt, tie, pants and shoes all seem not to fit him very well, and Ms Pill's dress is utterly unsuitable for this interview, as are her shoes. Paul Gallo's lighting is balefully fluorescent, with gentle twilights accompanying the arias.

Mr Harrower's conclusion will satisfy some audiences more than others. The story of Ray and Una, it would appear, cannot have an end. It cannot burn itself out in sex (although that is something Una really wants), nor even in the almost allegorical orgiastic dumping of an overflowing garbage can. The lights go out; Una is left, terrified, in the canteen, while Ray goes off to investigate (is he just the janitor here, as Una mockingly surmises at one point?). A little girl arrives (Nicola Peltz); she's the daughter - not quite twelve - of the woman Ray lives with. Our mouths fall open in horror: is Ray at it again? Or about to be? Unfortunately, when the lights go out again, it is not right then at that moment. (May 2007)

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