Monday, April 4, 2016

Not Buying It: Blackbird and The Humans

Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams in David Harrower's Blackbird. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

In David Harrower’s Blackbird, which has opened on Broadway in a new revival, Una, a young woman in her twenties, tracks down Ray, with whom she had an affair when she was twelve and he was forty. Fifteen years have passed; he is working in another city, under another name, having reconstituted his life after spending three and a half years in prison. Their end-of-the-workday conversation in the garbage-strewn staff break room of the company where he works comprises almost the entire play (which runs approximately an hour and a half, without intermission). Harrower’s Scottish, and the play premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2005 before opening in the West End, where it won the Olivier Award for Best New Play, and on Broadway in 2007, with Jeff Daniels as Ray and Alison Pill as Una. I saw the original New York production, and except for Daniels’ gripping portrayal of Ray I didn’t care for it. It seemed to me to be an unnuanced depiction of pedophilia with a heroine whose justified fury at the adult man who slept with her when she was on the cusp of adolescence represents the second way in which he’s managed to wreck her existence: he can go on with his life but she can’t get over what he did to her. That is, it felt like a familiar kind of social problem play that takes a stand no one could possibly dispute – a drama that flatters the audience for its right-mindedness.

It wasn’t until years later when I caught the Toronto production by Studio 180, directed by my friend Joel Greenberg, that I realized how complex Harrower’s text is – that the Broadway director, Joe Mantello, and his actress had reduced it to a de facto laying out of a situation guaranteed to disturb an audience but certainly not challenge it. Studio 180’s Blackbird was jagged and unresolvable; it took in all the elements that make the relationship between these two characters sour and upsetting, like the fact that Ray doesn’t fit the pedophilic model (he had no prior history of sexual relationships with a minor), the hysteria behind Una’s appearance at his workplace and her interaction with him once she gets there, and the fact that the residue from their relationship from a decade and a half earlier still exerts a hypnotic pull on both of them. In order to acknowledge all the layers in the play, a production would have to do what Greenberg did and Mantello wasn’t comfortable doing: present the characters in a way that reaches far beyond the black-and-white, finger-pointing way in which we’d prefer to view this situation. The final beat of the play – which I won’t reveal – complicates the scenario still farther; in the 2007 Broadway edition, all it did was underscore the simplified vision Mantello had been selling all along. Not surprisingly, the Toronto production didn’t garner the admiring reviews the New York one had; its rawness (and especially Jessica Greenberg’s lacerating performance as Una) got under the critics’ skin.

Mantello is back as the director of the latest New York Blackbird, which is more daring than the first one, though he hasn’t still hasn’t worked through all of Harrower’s ideas. Jeff Daniels, returning as Ray, is even better than he was the first time around. The problem is the last one I would have anticipated: Michelle Williams’ portrayal of Una. It’s not that she shies away from both the uglier and the more sexually ambiguous undercurrents of the role, as Alison Pill did; it’s that she’s so mannered in the part. In her best movie roles, in Blue Valentine and Take This Waltz and especially as Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn, her unerring psychological authenticity makes her electrifying; as Una, she acts so hard that she bypasses naturalism altogether. It’s a hothouse performance, uncomfortably like the one Monroe herself gave in The Misfits when she was desperate to be taken seriously as an actress. You can see that she’s trying to steer the show into the play’s darkest corners, but all I could see was theatricality.

Reed Birney, left, Jayne Houdyshell, Cassie Beck, Sarah Steele and Arian Moayed in The Humans. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The playwright Stephen Karam has a sitcom writer’s facility with one-liners; he lulls you in by using humor to smooth the path and then he hits you with one disaster after another. In Sons of the Prophet, which the Huntington Theatre Company produced in Boston before it received a much-praised New York run, the characters are so overwhelmed with misfortune that the play is finally about how we deal with life when the cards are stacked against us. At least, that’s what I thought when I reviewed it – but his current Broadway play, The Humans, is a parade of misery that makes the lives of the characters in Sons of the Prophet feel almost benign by comparison. It’s Thanksgiving, and Brigid Blake (Sarah Steele) and her live-in boy friend Richard (Arian Moayed) have invited her family to celebrate it in their new apartment in downtown Manhattan. Rich is older than Brigid but his life was stalled for a few years by depression. She’s a musician and composer whose career has gone nowhere – because, she has just learned, the college professor she’s been counting on for letters of recommendation for grants and fellowships has been sidelining her by damning her with the faintest of praise. Her sister Aimee (Cassie Beck) has a serious case of colitis and has just been informed by the law firm where she works that she’s no longer on track to make partner. And she’s still in love with her long-time girlfriend, who dumped her a while back and is now seeing someone else. Their parents, Erik (Reed Birney) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), arrive with Erik’s mother, “Momo” (Lauren Klein), who has advanced quite far into dementia; she lives with them and they say they can’t afford to hire outside help. There are tensions between Erik and Deirdre and between the parents and their daughters – especially between Deirdre, a devout Catholic, and Brigid, whose atheism and willingness to live with her boyfriend rankle Deirdre so much that she brings a statue of the Virgin as a housewarming gift. And that’s not all: Karam saves the most upsetting revelation until the end.

The play wants to convince you that it’s grounded in reality, and it appears to be doing that very thing for many people (including many critics); as I walked down the street after the Saturday matinee I heard a young man proclaim that he felt he knew all the people on the stage and even felt he was one of them. I had the opposite reaction: with dramaturgy that amounts to an unending series of hard knocks, after a while I just stopped believing in them. The fact that it’s an unrelenting chronicle of an Irish Catholic family doesn’t make The Humans either Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night or Christopher Durang’s The Marriage of Bette and Boo. Karam writes women and men who are defined by their misery, not by the depths of their characters, and he doesn’t have a lyrical bone in his body. And that humor that ropes you in is superficial; I don’t think he has anything going for him beyond the ability to make jokes. Joe Mantello’s production has integrity, and the actors give skillful performances, especially Birney, Houdyshell and Steele. But I couldn’t wait to get out of the theatre and leave behind all this essentially phony “realness.”

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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