A ghost from the past catches up with Jeff Daniels in a brutal and bruising way during the first Broadway staging of David Harrower’s “Blackbird,” an Olivier Award-winning drama last produced in New York nearly a decade ago.
Doing the haunting — the subject matter is child molestation, hardly bankable material in the Broadway ecosystem — is Michelle Williams, the three-time Oscar nominee who recently spent a year as Sally Bowles in “Cabaret.” “Blackbird” has just opened at the Belasco Theatre.
Daniels, the slouchy star of “The Newsroom” and so many excellent films, plays Ray, a middle-aged businessman working late one-night in a nondescript industrial office. He’s jarred by the arrival of Una (Williams), whom he hasn’t seen in 15 years.
When Ray was 40, and Una was 12, they had a physical relationship. They were neighbors, who met when Una’s father invited Ray over for a BBQ. Ray served a few years in prison for the crime, changed his name and moved on. Una has only recognized him from a photo in a trade magazine.
On this night, Ray is quick to usher Una into a trash-strewn conference room to avoid notice by his co-workers.
The first minutes of “Blackbird” are spent in a battle-of-wills as the two fine actors struggle over whether the door should remain open or shut. Ray wants it open. He’s fumbling and terrified: What could Una want? Is she here to finally strip away his “authority,” in sexual-abuse parlance?
“Blackbird” operates in shades of gray. There is the matter of amends, but that doesn’t quite seem to be what Una is seeking, even as Ray tells her about a letter he wrote from prison, apologizing, that someone—law enforcement? her parents?—had the good sense not to share.
Williams is venomous, fragile and, finally, stripped bare as she narrates a spellbinding account of Una’s last encounter with Ray, at a beach-side hotel in a town far away enough from where they both lived that they wouldn’t be recognized.
The graphic memory telegraphs Una’s reaction a while later, when the power briefly fails, and Ray has to leave (or rather, “abandon”) the room to resolve the problem.
Daniels, with his memorable hangdog face, performed the role in the MTC’s 2007 production, opposite Alison Pill. In his hands, it’s apparent Ray knows what he did was wrong, but also clear that he doesn’t believe he was one of “them”—the kind of man who belongs on a sex-offender registry.
We believe that Ray believes his attraction to Una was more than sexual, not diseased or Nabokovian. Harrower isn’t saying what happened is justifiable, but he is arguing it was complicated. After Una tells Ray her father died some years back, Ray moves to comfort her, touching her back in the warm way a friend might. The way Williams reacts feels pointedly truthful.
Joe Mantello’s direction is as taut as in “The Humans.” A film version of “Blackbird,” starring Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn, and retitled “Una,” is in post-production.
Scottish playwright Harrower’s one-act, 90-minute drama is an unlikely Rialto inhabitant. I’m genuinely surprised a piece of this intense nature has made it to Broadway. “Blackbird” is a small gem, here in the hands of two gifted actors.
“Blackbird,” through June 11 at the Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St. Tickets: $39-$250. Call 212-239-6200.