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Review: San Francisco - "Blackbird"


May 10, 2007

By Richard Connema

Jessi Campbell and Steven Culp.
Photo by Eric Tomasson.
American Conservatory Theatre is currently presenting the controversial drama "Blackbird" by British playwright David Harrower. If you found an appeal in Nabokov's likewise self-justificatory "Lolita," you will love "Blackbird". The 90-minute drama is a haughty, academic exercise involving Ray, a middle-aged man, and 20-something Una discussing their past sexual relationship. The drama evokes shocking sympathy by revealing the relationship of these two characters to be about diametrically opposed compulsive love.

"Blackbird" premiered in London, running two hours with a melodramatic ending. It won the Olivier Award for best new play in 2006. It has been cut to 80 minutes for the San Francisco Bay Area audiences. It's hard to keep from feeling, especially in the opening fifteen minutes, that you are watching a David Mamet play. The two characters use pared down and fractured speech patterns. There is barely a complete sentence at the beginning of the drama. It is a provocative play full of tension. Even the little things are interesting, such as Ray's insistence that the door remain ajar throughout the whole confrontation, since he needs an escape route.

The basic plot is that Una has finally tracked Ray down, years after the then 41-year-old man impregnated her when she was 12. Una was very much in love with the middle-aged man. It was "rape with consent," some would say. Ray was sent to prison and under a new name has created a new life with a slightly older woman. Una was also something of a prisoner since the affair was highly publicized and her mother refused to move from the neighborhood where the neighbors called Una a whore.

Steven Culp ("Angels in America" and Rex Van De Kamp on television's "Desperate Housewives") and Jessi Campbell (New York "Inky" and "Victoria Martin: Math Team Queen") manage to sustain their roles and keep the audience interested throughout the play. Culp plays the role with an excellent jumpy defensiveness. You can see Ray is psychically scarred by his prison time. Jessi Campbell gives a wonderful performance as a person who has been deeply hurt from the sexual experience. She wants closure from the man who took advantage of her teenage crush.

Portia Juliette (alternating with Hannah Rose Kornfield) has a small but pivotal role at the end of the performance that will get the audience thinking.

Robert Brill's realistic set is a lunchroom in a warehouse where Ray works; there are vending machines and the set is littered with food wrappers about the tables and floor. The background is an elongated frosted glass window behind which we see figures moving and sometimes lurking to listen to the conversation. The florescent lighting by Russell H. Champa makes the room bright as a hospital operating room.

"Blackbird"runs through May 27th at the American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. For tickets 415-749-2228 or online at A.C.T.'s final production of the current season will be Moliere's "The Imaginary Invalid" opening on June 7th and running through July 8th.

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