Alison Pill and Jeff Daniels in Blackbird
(© Joan Marcus)
Alison Pill and Jeff Daniels in Blackbird
(© Joan Marcus)
David Harrower's controversial drama Blackbird was a hit in London last year and won the 2007 Olivier Award for Best New Play. Unfortunately, the show's American premiere production at the Manhattan Theater Club, helmed by Tony Award winner Joe Mantello and with Jeff Daniels and Alison Pill in the starring roles, doesn't live up to expectations.

If you don't want to know the plot, stop reading here. As the play begins, Una (Pill) has dropped in unexpectedly at the office of her former lover, Ray (Daniels). He's not happy about it, and it soon becomes obvious why. The last time they saw each other was 15 years ago when he was 40 and she was 12. Their illicit relationship landed him in jail. Since his release, he has changed his name and tried to rebuild his life. Una's arrival threatens all that, as she has come seeking answers to questions about the ill-fated affair that forever marked her.

One major problem is that the bulk of the 90-minute, intermissionless play consists of exposition. The two characters rehash the details of their former relationship, from their first meeting to the night where it all went wrong. Along the way, Harrower includes some graphic descriptions of their sexual encounters, but this seems to have been done more for shock value than anything else. The audience is given the facts as well as the characters' sometimes contradictory perspectives on those facts.

Harrower seems to want to explore the moral complexities inherent in taboo sexual relations. He avoids a simplistic narrative that would make Ray the villain of the piece. From the get-go, Ray presents himself not as the predator but as the injured party, which offers us an interestingly skewed perspective on the action. Una is the one controlling their reunion, at least initially, and she comes across as dangerously obsessive. The balance shifts several times during the course of the play, but while the motivations of the characters and the decisions they make and have made may be provocative, they aren't always believable.

That said, there are some effective moments, particularly within Pill's performance. The outward calm and hard-edged attitude that Una first exhibits gives way to a poignant vulnerability. When she asks Ray -- without irony -- if she's now too old for him to find her attractive, you can hear an audible gasp from the audience.

A blackout that strands Una scared and alone, lit only by the glow of a snack machine, packs a powerful punch -- in part thanks to the lighting design of Paul Gallo. Also, the waif-like Pill is a startling visual contrast to Daniels, particularly when they're standing side by side. He towers over her as an adult dwarfs a child.

As Ray, Daniels displays obvious anger, anxiety, and annoyance, but he is less able to let the audience see the conflicted emotions boiling under the surface. As a result, his longer speeches -- particularly when he gets his turn at describing how the affair ended -- don't have the impact they should.

The production drags, which is surprising, since Mantello usually runs such a tight ship. Moreover, the play too often comes across as rather heavy-handed. For example, one of the primary metaphors in Blackbird is the garbage that litters Scott Pask's sleekly designed, appropriately oppressive office environment. In one scene, Ray and Una start to throw garbage around the room, but the action seems forced. It's supposed to symbolically reflect the mess that the characters have made of their lives, but sometimes a mess is just a mess.