When Ray (Jeff Daniels) yanks Una (Michelle Williams) into his office lunchroom, we immediately know something’s very wrong. Vibrating with rage and panic, keeping his distance as if caged with a lioness, he wants to know how Una found him (a photo in a trade magazine) and what she wants. Fifteen years ago, 40 year-old Ray pursued and had sex with then 12 year-old Una shattering both their lives. He turned himself in, served time, moved, changed his name, and is in a relationship. She saw psychiatrists, traveled, finally holds down a job, and, after numerous lovers meant to punish her parents for separating them, has had a boyfriend.
He wears a shirt and tie like any white collar employee. She has on a thin, short, girlish dress and very high heels. (Costumes Ann Roth) Una closes the door, Ray opens it. Una kicks it closed with her foot. Ray opens it. Una slams it. His chin juts out; tension holds neck and shoulders rigid. She acts as if she’s in control but is obviously unstable. His words are spasmodic, hers measured.
Una insists on talking about what’s happened since. She’s aggressive, accusatory. Ray’s answers are succinct, defensive. He intermittently throws her coat and bag at the girl, trying to make her leave. She recalls how their liaison began, describing him as a predator. He remembers her preteen self as precocious, seductive. We watch him viscerally suffer.
She demands they go over what occurred the fateful night they were exposed. The two stories prove revelatory. Was the breech simply a matter of crossed wires? There are things Una kept from the police. Ray still thinks of her every day. Pain is omnipresent, internal conflict palpable, eruption imminent.
I saw the 2007 Manhattan Theatre Club production of this play which featured the same Director – Joe Mantello, the same Set Designer – Scott Pask, and, most importantly, one of the same leads – Jeff Daniels. Though details have faded, I remember feeling like the wind had been knocked out of me. Alas, that doesn’t happen this time around.
Jeff Daniels, who has grown as an actor over time, brings new comprehension and maturity to the role. Ray’s wrenching journey is manifest from the gut. Protest is torn from him, feelings bleed. Shame doesn’t prevent what the character perceives as love. In testament to David Harrower’s insightful writing, judgment about the immoral, illegal coupling doesn’t prevent one’s sympathy for the man. Daniels appears whole and credible.
Michelle Williams, however, does not. An actress I have admired elsewhere, Williams here seems all surface twitches. Either she hasn’t made decisions about Una’s emotions or her expression of them is too internal. Until the character breaks down at the end of the play, the stage belongs to Daniels. Without equal push-pull, the piece cannot be successful.
Director Joe Mantello, whose talents I have always appreciated, seems to have achieved only half what he set out to do.
Scott Pask’s sterile, gray Set Design provides an aptly cold and impersonal atmosphere.
Photos by Brigitte Lacomb
Blackbird by David Harrower
Jeff Daniels, Michelle Williams
Directed by Joe Mantello
111 West 44th Street
Through June 11, 2016
Tickets at Telecharge or the box office