Thursday, June 9, 2016

Blown Away by 'Blackbird'

Some of the best moments of stage and screen involve intensity and revelations.

Think of the big reveals of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" or "August, Osage County." Or the tension-filled courtroom scenes of "The Insider" or "A Few Good Men."

Blend any of these unforgettable moments with the revenge-fueled rage of "Cape Fear" and you might get close to the ferocious geyser of emotions performed by Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams in "Blackbird," which I had the good fortune of experiencing last week at the Belasco Theater in New York.

Folks in proximity to Broadway should make haste to find tickets as this "Blackbird" revival in Manhattan flies away on Saturday, June 11, on the eve of when its outstanding stars will learn the result of their Tony Award nominations for best performance by an actor/actress in a leading role in a play.

The production is also up for best revival of a play.

I first read about "Blackbird" in early March through The New York Times' review of Daniels and Williams. The reporter's summary quickly drew me in, hoping for an option to experience the show.

Daniels was fresh on the brain as a February Netflix binge of "Newsroom" refreshed my appreciation of the actor's mastery of Aaron Sorkin's rich scripts. Williams' intensity in "Blue Valentine" also came to mind, with an option to see her with Daniels on stage quickly piquing my interest. Two of my all-time favorites in one place? HELLO!

The set of "Blackbird" is a littered office break room into which Daniels shoves Williams. Here's a guy in his 50's with a woman half his age, and it's clear from the first lines he does not want his coworkers to see her, nor to two of them together.

The sincerity of his concern and the sheen of sweat on his brow prove apt.

The audience quickly learns the woman, Una, tracked down the older (much older) Ray through a magazine article about his job at Company X. She's there to settle the score as Ray molested her 15 years earlier ... when she was 12. Yes, twelve ... when he was 40.

What follows is nearly 80 minutes of intensity and revelations, underscored by screaming matches, tearful admissions, tragic tales of bad timing and increasingly poor decisions. And the biggest surprise of all -- about two minutes from the play's final, haunting lines bewailed by a sobbing Williams -- brought an audible gasp from hundreds in the audience.

F-ing unreal! Many seemed to walk out of the theater numb from the experience.

The romantic and sexual themes brought to mind scenes from "sex, lies and videotape" during which the film's two main characters indulged in thoughtful, lengthy monologues with cathartic results.

One can hope that when Film4 releases the cinema version of "Blackbird" later this year -- titled "Una" and starring Rooney Mara with Ben Mendelsohn -- the filmmakers will not slice and dice the characters lengthy, barb-filled solos of the stage version.

If you've seen the video of the Cincinnati gorilla dragging a toddler, you've glimpsed at Daniels' on stage intensity, at times tugging or wrestling Una like a rag doll only to embrace and kiss her moments later as a protective would-be savior. Is he still the monster of his 40th year?

I think Williams' heartrending voice filling the Belasco will haunt me for years. She takes her twentysomething character to the edge, with glimpses of the best and worst of Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita" along the way.

Outside the theater on 44th Street, it was a relief to see Daniels and Williams emerge to chat with the crowd, smiling and laughing while signing autographs. I appreciated Daniels, who towers over many around him, for reaching over fellow fans to receive my Playbill, autograph it and then playfully toss the official program back to me in a manner just like Mean Joe Green.

My only regret is that I did not make time to see "Blackbird" sooner, while in Manhattan for Team USA's Road To Rio 100 Days to the Olympics celebration in Times Square. So pleased the holiday weekend provided time for the experience.

Wishing both performers and the production team great success when the Tony Award presentations take place on Sunday.

Images on stage via The New York Times by Sara Krulwich; outdoor theater photos by Nicholas Wolaver and copyright Nicholas Wolaver (may not be used without written permission)

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