A Review

Shattered Trust

By R. J. Donovan

In David Harrower's "Blackbird," receiving its New England premiere at SpeakEasy Stage, the story of the two characters, Ray and Una, unfolds through snippets of tense conversation. We're not "told" anything outright, but must put the pieces together based on their referencing elements of their past. And what a past they have.

Reviewers have been requested not to say too much about the plot. Which, in fact, leaves very little to say at all because it's the specifics that fuel this pressure cooker of an evening.

Suffice it to say that the older Ray and the younger Una have had an illicit relationship. They met innocently enough at a barbecue many years before, and eventually, things happened.

Time has passed, and both have been locked away, both in reality and emotionally. Now, after many years, Una has found Ray again. She turns up at his place of work, unannounced, to confront him about their past. To say he's unnerved puts it mildly

Directed by David R. Gammons, the entire story is played out in the lunch room of Ray's company. Filled with trash, the setting is an appropriate field of combat with the garbage more than symbolic of the tawdry events that will be rehashed.

Originally produced in London where it won The Olivier Award as Best New Play of 2007, "Blackbird" is an emotional fencing match of sorts, with each player lunging only to retreat at counter attack. The control of the story slides back and forth between the two, with the audience switching allegiance as the terms shift.

The staccato dialogue rings true as does the stark set. As Ray, Bates Wilder is convincing as he builds a conflicted, uncomfortable character. Neither all good nor all bad, he's just trying to eke out an existence. Sympathetic one minute, but vile the next, he knows what he's done, but he pockets his guilt to rationalize it.

As well, Mariana Bassham is equally conflicted as the young woman still haunted by things she cannot get past. She may have been less than innocent, but she's suffered pain beyond pain. Frail yet commanding, Bassham is particularly good in a lengthy monologue about two-thirds of the way through the intermission-less evening.

As the dance of accusations and indictments surges, it's hard to tell where Harrower's going. However a surprise twist awaits at the end, even though it doesn't put a finite button on anything. (In truth, the audience wasn't even sure the play was over.)

So what, you may ask, does any of this have to do with the title. Well the program notes provide a diversity of references. But aside from the 4 and 20 that were baked in that pie, blackbirds have long left a bad taste in the mouth. Either they were lurking about serving as a precursor of evil (think ravens and Edgar Allan Poe), or they were chasing the residents of Bodega Bay and plucking people's eyes out. (And in fact, Ray seems to spend in inordinate about of time trying to get something out of his own eye).

Unlike the usual productions at SpeakEasy, there is no onstage welcome prior to the performance beginning. In keeping with the stark image, the house announcements about exits and cellphones is made through the tinny speaker of the bleak, colorless set. It's a nice touch to maintain the continuity, but the harsh lighting aimed directly at the audience, tends to blind. The guy sitting in front of me actually had his hand up in front of his face for most of the play

Bottom line, Blackbird is a dark but interesting. What it needs is a more concrete ending, even if that just calls for a final blackout.

And speaking of concrete endings -- if you see "Blackbird," all of what I've said above will make a whole lot more sense.

"Blackbird" from SpeakEasy Stage, is at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center For The Arts, 527 Tremont Street, through March 21. For information, call 617-933-8600.

Production photos: Stratton McCrady

-- OnStage Boston



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