Nine Years Later, A Different Way of Looking at a Blackbird

Opening Night   Nine Years Later, A Different Way of Looking at a Blackbird
Director Joe Mantello and Jeff Daniels reflect on the differences between this Blackbird and the Off-Broadway original they worked on together almost a decade ago.
Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams Brigitte Lacombe

In light of how much Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams “gave at the office” March 10 at the Belasco, producer Scott Rudin wisely spared his Blackbird stars the “stand and repeat” ordeal of a press gauntlet and kept reporters away from their after-party.

The last thing these actors needed was additional grilling on the brutalizing verbal donnybrook they had just gone through for nigh-on 90 minutes of stage time.

This stunning 2005 two-hander by Scottish playwright David Harrower is—well, harrowing. Its combatants are 15 years down the road from sexual abuse that occurred when Ray was 40 and Una was 12. She grew up a whispered-about outcast in the same town; he, after a three-year prison term, assumed a new name, moved on to a new city and took up a new job, which he performed satisfactorily enough to rate a picture in a trade journal. She sees the picture and shows up at his workplace full of rage, curiosity, attraction, resentment and questions. Boom! the play begins.

Jeff Daniels in <i>Blackbird</i>
Jeff Daniels in Blackbird Joan Marcus

When Blackbird premiered Off-Broadway in 2007 at Manhattan Theatre Club, Harrower was in attendance and said his play was “based very loosely” on an incident he had read about five or six years earlier concerning an American Marine meeting a woman on an internet chat room and going through with their date even after he learned she was under the age of legal consent. “That was the thing that sparked it off basically,” Harrower recalled, “but the rest of the play is truly my own creation.”

Some of the play’s volatile secrets, he said, got spilled in the process of getting it to market, but “in those first wonderful weeks in Edinburgh, nobody knew, and people would be staggering out of the theatre. I think theatre—the theatre I want to write—has to be visceral. I’m not an intellectual playwright. I’m not Tom Stoppard. As much as I respect him, I need theatre to work on a different level for me. It is important for me that people do feel hit by it, that they do feel accosted by it.”

Interestingly, his Blackbird trumped Stoppard’s Rock and Roll for the 2005 Olivier Award, but in this country it finished second to Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia for the 2007 Drama Desk Award, which was the most that the play was then eligible for.

Not a few felt that this whopping-wound-of-a-play deserved more. At the time, The New York Times’ Ben Brantley, for one, thought it “a drama that promises to be the most powerful of the season,” that at the end of the play, “under the masterly direction of Joe Mantello . . . Jeff Daniels and Alison Pill are about as naked as it’s possible for two people to be.”

Director Mantello was another who didn’t think Blackbird got its just desserts. “Nine years ago, when we were in the middle of our Off-Broadway run,” he said, “there was talk of moving it to Broadway, and that didn’t happen for a number of reasons. I think perhaps that played into my feeling of unfinished business with this play.”

Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels Brigitte Lacombe

That prompted him to propose a Broadway revival to producer Rudin. “My memory of it was that Scott was one of the people who were interested in moving it to Broadway at the time. We spoke about it, and he was quite open to the idea.”

One of the Broadway stumbling blocks was the nature of the beast—the emotionally raw and unrelenting level of acting required to put the roles over. “I don’t know how much longer we can do it, but it is wonderful to do,” confessed Daniels, at the time. “I will need a team of psychotherapists from Vienna to put me back together again.”

Apparently, they did a good job because he was quick to rise to the bait of a rematch, according to Mantello. “He was really open to it and intrigued by the idea of doing it again. It’s nine years later. Jeff and I have both had different life experiences. We’re in a different place in our lives and careers, so the chance to approach this material again was a challenge for us. I mean, the writing is great, and it demands that you up your game if you’re going to wrestle with it. And who doesn’t want to do that?”

Well, Pill passed—though she and Daniels worked well together again on HBO’s The Newsroom. “Of course, we wanted Alison to do it,” Mantello admitted, “but, because of her life right now—she’s based in Los Angeles now, doing a lot of film and TV—so she ultimately chose not to do it, but she gave us her blessing, and we moved on.”

Michelle Williams in Blackbird Brigitte Lacombe

Happily, there was an emotionally available actress around like Michelle Williams to move on to. “The play is very different with Michelle, as it would be with any two actors,” Mantello pointed out. “This play is like a dance between those two characters, so, by virtue of it being such an intimate play, it will, of course, take on these two personalities—what they find interesting, what they find dangerous, what they find intriguing, what they find terrifying, what they’re interested in in the role.”

Suddenly, Daniels and Mantello found themselves back with a vengeance at Square One—that entrance where Ray has yanked Una out of his office and manhandled her down the hall and into a tacky, trashy but mercifully empty employee lunchroom.

“Part of our work in rehearsal was to discuss and dissect what’s the moment that happens right before those two characters enter,” said the director, “so we created a little scenario in our head of Michelle’s character showing up, asking for him, and what was that moment like when they laid eyes on each other for the first time.”

Time has tempered the way the entrance is staged and played. The younger Daniels was seething with anger, dangerously close to cold-cocking the intruder. The older Daniels is more vulnerable and confused and terrified by what her presence will do.

“Joe and I really worked on that,” said the actor. “We examined everything. We really emphasized this time that he’s scared to death. With one trip to his boss’ office, there goes his life. It’s like a Times Square banner taped inside of my forehead. I just see that same thing: ‘What do you want?’ ‘What do you want?’ ‘What do you want?’ ‘What do you want?’ You just drum that into your head, and that gets you to: ‘Has she talked to the boss?’ ‘Does she know where I live?’ ‘Has she gone to a reporter?’ ‘Has she talked to the woman I’m with?’ Everything ends if she does any of that.

“The fact that she wants to go over it, needs closure, needs something here where I work—I’m trapped like a cornered animal. Everything that I’ve told everyone there is a lie. I’m not who I say I am. I have a different name. The woman that I’m with now has no idea of my past. And this is the one person who can blow it all up.”

Nine years ago, it took Daniels 15 minutes to get rid of his day and become Ray. Now, he has it down to ten minutes. “It’s just a focus. I start to eliminate everything else—things that I’ve been thinking about in my day and all that. I do the same thing from half-hour on—put the clothes on, start the vocal warm-up, do what makeup I do, and then I just start pacing and focusing on what he’s thinking about when she shows up, getting the heart rate up so, when he sees her, he’s full of adrenaline.”

Blurred glass reflections of his co-workers parade by the lounge. Some knock, open the door a crack and bark a terse line. When Daniels leaves the stage to go back to an inner office, he invariably returns freshly inflamed. “Tony Ward, who is my understudy, is back there, every single night giving me a different improv: ‘You got a problem here with management.’ ‘I don’t know who this girl is, but you might want to get your resume ready.’ That fuels it. Later, he comes to the door and says even worse things about my status there. I’m trapped, scared to death, literally shaking. It happens if someone gets a gun put to their head. Which is exactly what she’s doing.

“I don’t do CrossFit—y’know, that workout that is apparently the workout of all workouts—but this feels like I have been in a CrossFit workout for 90 minutes emotionally, physically and mentally. You really need a smoothie afterwards.”

But there’s a light at the end of this tunnel. “It’s kinda wonderful to get to the curtain call and stand there with nothing left. I haven’t ever done a play where I’ve felt like that. That’s what you want to feel like, and that’s what Michelle and I feel like at the end. Whatever we had, we laid it on the stage for you, and we have nothing left.”

Read the reviews for Blackbird.

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