Fusion of Passion Onstage Under the Microscope
Renaissance Theaterworks’ Blackbird Explores the Passion of Human Intimacy
Unseasonably Spring-like weather hung in the air. The Third Ward was alive with the strange energies of Gallery Night activity. In the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre, Renaissance Theaterworks was opening its new drama—David Harrower’s Blackbird.
My wife and I sat with a number of critics from other publications near the back of the studio theatre. The view of Scenic Designer Nathan Stuber’s set from the back row was interesting. The play’s 70 or so minutes without intermission play out in a filthy factory break room. It’s a very, very small place. The worn linoleum tiles are elevated from the floor of the studio theatre. There are distinctive, institutional foam hanging tiles and fluorescent lighting compacting the space from above. The walls that frame the floor and ceiling shrink the intimate confines of the studio theater considerably. Backstage lights glint off the bare brick walls of the studio theatre outside the set. The entirety of the play entirely plays out in a confined space that is almost uncomfortably small. From the back row, looking out into Stuber’s set is like looking into a microscope of human emotion. Two people. One place. There’s a world outside and a history beyond it but here, now the drama of that world crystallizes for 70 unrelenting minutes.
Everybody’s in the theatre. The lights fall, when the lights rise, there’s Carrie Coon (on the left) and Brian Mani (on the right.) Mani’s playing Ray—an aging man who had an affair years ago with Una (played by Coon.) Una was substantially underage at the time. She was only a child. Shouldn’t’ve been in a relationship. Ray was in his forties. She’s an adult now. He’s done time, changed his name and moved on. She’s found him. She has questions.
Over the years, there have been a number of dramas covering the subject of sexual/romantic older man/underage women interactions. How I Learned to Drive and Oleanna come to mind. What playwright David Harrower does here that’s kind of unique is allowing all the drama to play out over the course of a single conversation. The emotional impact of a very powerful relationship that profoundly effected the lives of the two people who were in it is talked about in a post-hoc conversation long after it happened. That conversation is a little over an hour without significant break. A lot gets said. There’s kind of a studied staccato in Harrower’s dialogue that amplifies the human imperfections of the two characters. That kind of dialogue can be very, very difficult to capture in live performance, but Mani and Coon do a pretty good job of it here. One pictures Mani, Coon and director Suzan Fete going over an endless parade of different approaches to individual lines. The overall emotional resonance of the interaction between Una and Ray feels authentic as it plays out between Coon and Mani, but the finer details of the script were a bit illusive opening night. In a conversation like this, a huge range of different emotions come out in surprisingly different moods. It’s only an hour, but it feels like a lifetime. Mani and Coon manage to capture a great deal of that, but a one hour conversation about a doomed romantic affair years after it happened has a kind of life of its own that they didn’t quite manage to reach. That being said, this is a very, very powerful drama that beautifully represents the full complexity of emotions under the influence of human imperfection.
Renaissance Theaterworks’ Blackbird runs through February 7th at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre