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Review: Exploring an Age-inappropriate Affair

Olivier Award-winning 'Blackbird' plays ACT

(c) Bay Area Reporter

May 10, 2007



By Richard Dodds

Jessi Campbell and Steven Culp in "Blackbird." Photo: Erik Tomasson
A century ago, when the age of consent in many states was 12 years old, there wasn't much of a pedophilia problem to dramatize. As with homosexuality, which didn't exist as a concept until laws were passed against it, criminality provided a firm base upon which authors can ponder the moral and psychological ramifications of sex between majors and minors.

Vladimir Nabokov, of course, set the standard in 1955 with "Lolita," a novel in which the rules are clear enough, but responsibility for their breakage is made purposefully, disturbingly hazy. The dramatic potentials embedded in this scenario are continually being re-explored, often successfully if the Oscar for "American Beauty" and the Pulitzer Prizes won by "How I Learned to Drive" and "Doubt" are any indications.

The latest example is David Harrower's "Blackbird," which won the 2007 Olivier Award for best new play in London and recently opened in New York in an Americanized production that has been critically lauded. ACT is right in the thick of things with its production that retains the original English locale (but forgoes the actual exhaust-belching car that brought down the curtain in the London production). It's an intelligent play that seems to have benefited by addressing a subject called taboo despite its frequent appearances in fiction.

When the curtain rises, an angry young woman is lashing out at a harried middle-aged man in a banal office lunchroom. They speak in that fragmented, pause-punctuated way that at first uncomfortably recalls Pinter and Mamet, and that keeps us from quickly deciphering their history. But then Una asks Peter, "How many other 12-year-olds have you had sex with?"

Fifteen years after their brief affair, if a relationship between a 12-year-old girl and a 40-year-old man can be called an affair, Una has tracked down Peter despite his post-prison efforts at crafting a new identity. She's after many things; revenge, closure, answers, affirmation included. Una realizes many of her motives at the same time we do, and they catch the wary Peter up in the good and bad of it all. The playwright pulls a smart, dirty trick at the end, and we accept it because it catches us in a quick judgment of dubious reliability.

Robert Brill's fluorescent-lit, fast-food-trashed set suggests a naturalism to which neither the script nor Loretta Greco's direction really adhere. The stagecraft is often visible, but not employed well enough to keep Harrower's words from sometimes drying out in a relatively short running time.

Steven Culp and Jessi Campbell play their roles, as well as their shape-shifting relationship, with admirable passion. They speak no specific explanation for the title, an ambiguity that "Blackbird" wants to promote as a kind of ethical jigsaw puzzle. Its final flight, however, doesn't quite fulfill the fuss.

Blackbird will run at ACT through May 27. Tickets are $17.50-$73.50. Call 749-2228 or go to act-sf.org.

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