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Review: 'Blackbird' Sings a Daring Song

(c) Broadway World

May 6, 2007

By Eugene Lovendusky

Bay Area theatre has seen quite its share of deviant leading men this season. A touchy-feely priest, a mentally-challenged child-killer, kidnappers, murderers… and soon a cannibalistic barber! Why not let one more join the parade? Enter David Harrower's "Blackbird," a short and shocking piece premiering now at the American Conservatory Theatre, with a gripping focus on the aftermath of pedophilia.

Amidst a terribly rubbish-strewn conference room (don't worry, it gets dirtier) stands Una, an attractive but frazzled young woman. She stares at Peter, a tired, handsome everyman. Both dance around disjointed dialogue, unfinished sentences, swallowed words, and rising stakes. Who is this woman? What's their secret? Why am I so uncomfortable?

Then the mother-load: "How many 12 year olds have you had sex with?"

And here we are. What first feels like an encounter between two ex-lovers (well, they are, in a sense), quickly reveals itself to be something much more disturbing.

Peter, who has changed his name from Ray and started a new life for himself since imprisonment, is delicately displayed by "Desperate Housewives'" Steven Culp. A transparent man, defined only by his actions, Peter/Ray can't even convince himself (let alone the audience) that he has "moved on." Culp's sweaty brow and pacing keeps the intensity churning.

ACT new-comer Jessi Campbell is arresting as Una. It is clear she has been shaped by the events following her affair with Ray. Campbell's Una is like a vase balancing on a table-edge… beautiful and fragile. She feels she has lived a 15-year sentence, plagued by the memories of a "stupid girl who had a stupid crush."

In a marvelous at-length monologue, Una details how it all happened: a fateful day at a barbeque where she met Peter/Ray, which led to a hair-raising courtship and seaside retreat. Campbell's compelling storytelling takes full-focus; emotion-laden, everything we wanted and never wanted to know.

Harrower constructs a history for Peter that teases with the idea of separating a sheep from a pack of wolves. Peter asserts that he was never one of those "sick bastards" online who exploit and abuse children. Una was the only one; one too many, but the only one.

The frustration with Harrower's script comes from the space surrounding a sensitive core. Much of the dialogue outside Una's monologue and the intro and end seems unsupportive. Granted, this keeps us unnerved – but also suffers "two-steps-forward, one-step-back" syndrome.

Russell H. Champa's fluorescent lighting gives no clues on how to feel. Una and Peter collide in a shadow-less and sterile environment, placing us nose-to-nose with strangers in an elevator. The blue chairs and lunchroom tables of Robert Brill's set looked much like that of "The History Boys". Surprising for such a large house, the limited on-stage space only boxed the discomfort in tighter.

Harrower wickedly triggers uncomfortable laughter throughout. There is a bizarre humor when the two enjoy a light chit-chat, like sharing fishing stories. Giggles marvelously melt into gasps especially at the entrance of the third character.

Both Una and Peter are contemporary tragic figures who want to heal. Who want to remember and forget; to hate and love. We know what they desire and what they had. But do we forgive? Can we?

With Albee-esque construction, there is absolutely nothing admirable about this man. Still we toy with the idea of sympathy… only for a moment… before realizing, not that we couldn't, but that we shouldn't. In a set of enticing and revolting events, Harrower carefully steers an audience into moral-ambiguity, with one's own deep moral-compass as the only way out.

"Blackbird:" by David Harrower, directed by Loretta Greco, featuring Jessi Campbell and Steven Culp, at the American Conservatory Theatre through May 27, 2007. 85 minutes with no intermission. Tickets ($17.50-$73.50) are available at 415-749-2228 or ACT Ticket Services is located at 405 Geary Street at Mason in San Francisco. Photos by Erik Tomasson.

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