In a small, cramped, hole-in-the-wall apartment somewhere on Canal Street lives a Gulf War veteran named Baylis and his teenaged girlfriend, Froggy. Adam Rapp’s latest play, Blackbird, presented by the Edge Theater Company and directed by Rapp himself, immerses the audience firmly into the bleak, claustrophobic world of these characters. Compelling as it is, the play is not for the faint of heart; it contains graphic scatological references, simulated drug use, and descriptions of trauma that can leave the viewer stunned and/or sickened.
The squalid naturalism of the production is firmly established by set designer David Korins, who has transformed the Blue Heron’s Studio Theatre into an incredibly detailed, run-down tenement room complete with weathered brick walls, exposed wiring, and a caved-in ceiling.
The performances of Paul Sparks as Baylis and Mandy Siegfried as Froggy are likewise full of fine detail. Baylis has a slipped disc that limits his mobility and has led to an incontinence problem that necessitates his wearing diapers. He is understandably ill-tempered and his relationship with Froggy seems at first to be built mainly on violence and drug addiction, but all of that soon gives way to a surprising tenderness and genuine affection. Sparks handles the mood shifts of his character flawlessly, endowing Baylis with an unpredictability that keeps audiences on edge; he’s likely to explode in violent fits of anger just as easily as he might laugh or even sing a song. Siegfried’s character, on the other hand, keeps most of her emotions under wraps. Her voice has a deadened tonal quality but one senses that there are deep reservoirs of feeling lurking beneath her façade.
Despite the characters’ frank talk about sex and drugs, neither seems to know much about the other, including their first names. There are also trust issues involved: When he leaves the apartment, Baylis handcuffs Froggy to the bed so that she won’t get into his stash of drugs hidden in the closet. However, not wanting to leave her defenseless, he tucks a pocketknife into her hand before making his exit. This small detail lends an added dimension to their relationship and shows the care behind the seeming cruelty. Rapp has coaxed nuanced performances out of his actors, and the action is well paced and continually engrossing.
While the setting and characters remain grounded in naturalism, the playwright-director takes more liberties with his thematic concerns and literary allusions. The blackbird that comes a-tapping at Baylis’s window immediately calls to mind Edgar Allan Poe’s raven. Like Poe’s famous poem, Blackbird is a portrait of despair. Although there is a plot, which involves the results of Froggy’s trip to a medical clinic and Baylis’s attempts to contact the girl’s parents, the play at its core is an atmospheric character study. Revelations about the pasts of both Baylis and Froggy come to light, and we learn that neither has led a particularly cheerful life.
Despite its depressing subject matter, Rapp’s play is actually quite funny. Sure, the humor is often twisted and dark, but it’s there nonetheless. The relationship between Baylis and Froggy is so clearly defined that Blackbird can also be seen as a tragic love story. Rapp continues to prove that he’s a writer to watch out for and, with this production, demonstrates that he’s an up-and-coming stage director as well.