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Soho Rep opens its season with a first-rate production of Sarah Kane's shockingly violent drama.

Reed Birney and Marin Ireland in Blasted
(© Simon Kane)
It's taken 13 years for the late Sarah Kane's Blasted to reach New York -- and Soho Rep's first-rate production, helmed by artistic director Sarah Benson, confirms the piece's reputation as an audacious work seemingly designed for those theatergoers able to withstand an assault on the senses and emotions. When this shockfest debuted in the U.K., it heralded the arrival of an important new voice for the theater, even as it stunned audiences and critics with its depiction of the violence that people can visit on one another.

The play begins in a room at a swank boutique hotel (rendered beautifully by scenic designer Louisa Thompson) where Ian (Reed Birney), a bigoted, alcoholic, and sexually voracious reporter has brought the much younger, mentally and emotionally challenged Cate (Marin Ireland). The two were once lovers, and Ian hopes that he might be able to rekindle their passions. While Ian is crassly blunt about his intentions, Cate demurs, unsure as to whether she wants to return to their past physical relationship. Ultimately, she gives in, offering him a handjob before a night of brutal sex.

This carnality takes place against a backdrop of a civil war that's raging outside the hotel in the streets of Leeds. Ultimately, the fighting and viciousness of the war comes into the room when a soldier (Louis Cancelmi) bursts into the room. Although Ian's armed (his gun is present from the play's opening moments), he's quickly overpowered by the other man, who proceeds to both humiliate and torture him.

The violence that's depicted in Blasted ranges from the psychological to the physical; and on one level, as the atrocities mount, the action proves riveting. At the same time, though, there comes a moment when the sheer profusion of ghastly behavior becomes almost ludicrous, as if to eschew stunned contemplation. Still, Benson's staging is taut and rhythmically beautiful, particularly during the opening scene between Ian and Cate.

Equally important, Ireland captivates as Cate, making the character both child-like and adult. Birney's portrayal of Ian is a model of gross self-importance and manipulation mixed with despair as the character contemplates his mortality. As the unnamed soldier, Cancelmi brings a youthful machismo to the stage that surprisingly gives way to tenderness during some of the play's most vicious moments.

If the action of Blasted is not enough to startle theatergoers, Matt Tierney's bombastic soundscape for the production will. Similarly, lighting designer Tyler Micoleau, like scenic designer Thompson, has a number of jolting surprises in store for audiences. But if you don't shock easily, this one-of-a-kind theatrical experience is worth your while.