Broadway isn’t cheap and I’m not rich so the past few shows I’ve seen, my seats have been in the balcony. Normally not a big deal—but when I sat down in my seat at the Belasco Theatre (my favorite Broadway house) for the new production of Blackbird by David Harrower with Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams, my immediate thought was, “I sure hope they raise the top of the set otherwise they should have sold these seats as obstructed view.” When the lights came down the top of the set stayed put for a solid twenty minutes I obsessed and wondered what the hell the director (Joe Mantello) and scenic designer (Scott Pask) were thinking.
I don’t know if this is a new trend or just one I’m noticing more but I’m really struggling with the lack of consideration for audiences seated in the balconies of Broadway houses. It seems to me that the lines between orchestra, mezzanine and balcony have become more divisive and the lower the price of the ticket the less of an experience you’re granted. When a “good” seat in Broadway theatre can be as much as a half month’s rent, for many audience-goers the “cheap” seats are often the only option. But should a cheap ticket mean a cheap theatrical experience?
With Blackbird, the set was at the front of the stage to create an intimate playing space. A low ceiling complete with air conditioner vents covers an employee break room in an office building. The small, narrow room held a long conference table, chairs, a vending machine and trash. Lots and lots of trash. The scenic success came in creating an intimate playing space. The failure came in the alienation of all audience members above the orchestra because of the dropped ceiling.
As the lights come up, the set rotates to open and Jeff Daniels (Ray) comes charging through the door, roughly pulling Michelle Williams (Una) into the room and slamming the door behind them. Daniels is so physically electrifying in the opening moments of the show that you can’t take your eyes off him. He vibrates with nervousness, and the dialogue baits you to the point where you can’t stand it—you are desperate for the conflict to reveal itself. But it doesn’t come quickly and Daniels holds tension so beautifully and tellingly in his body that you’re forced to feel it too. While the opening moments are alive and vibrant, the pace slows and stutters as the story is knitted together.
It wasn’t long before I longed to get my hands on a script. Not because I was so invested in the words and story, but because I wanted to know if the ‘um’s and ah’s and erm’s” and verbal stumbling was scripted or simply performance line problems. While it didn’t necessarily bother me, it happened enough to make me continually wonder if this was a deliberate playwright choice or actor issues.
While the tension between the two actors never grew to a place where it felt like emotions should manifest physically, there is a semi-violent and sexual encounter staged. The combat choreography was clunky and measured and didn’t feel real. The close proximity of the set to the lip of the stage meant that audience safety had to be carefully considered and unfortunately that killed the danger and discomfort we should have felt. Similarly, the lack of sexual chemistry between Daniels and Williams prevented me from ever fully engaging with the characters or believing their story. The “sex” scene should have been equally hot and uncomfortable and yet it simply felt like a checked-off stage direction. I wanted to feel uncomfortable, I should have felt uncomfortable given the material and I never did.
There were two moments in the production where the director, lighting and sound designers made deliberate choices that turned potentially powerful and stand-alone acting moments (Una and Ray’s monologues, respectively) into action-baiting through the use of light and sound. A soft spotlight shines down on Una during her marathon monologue and behind her words is a low hum that increases in volume and intensity throughout the course of her speech. I kept thinking that a huge dramatic moment, physical or otherwise was around the corner, when in reality, all that happened was the end of the monologue. The same lighting and sound cues went into effect during Ray’s (much shorter) monologue and this both detracted from and cheapened moments that could have been successfully, effectively executed with words and actors alone.
Despite some questionable directorial and design choices, Blackbird was good. The last 1/4 of the production was interesting, engaging and provided enough of a payoff that I left satisfied. The final image in the heart-wrenching and beautifully book-ended end scene was powerful and jarring. I can only imagine that the production will get stronger and if you can make it through the middle (and sit in the orchestra!) Daniels’ movements in the beginning and the moments at the end make Blackbird worth the price of admission.