Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams in Blackbird.
Wednesday is, of course, a matinee day, so I saw two productions today and, as it worked out, they were two highly intense, intermissionless plays, which packed a lot of gut punch in roughly 90 minutes each.
The one with considerable star power was David Harrower’s Blackbird, making its Broadway debut although it is technically a revival, since its male lead, Jeff Daniels, and its director, Joe Mantello, first collaborated on the powerful work off-Broadway in 2007.
Daniels is now teamed with three-time Oscar nominee and stage veteran Michelle Williams as Ray and Una, a pair of lost souls with a history together. She has tracked him down and confronts him at his workplace, demanding he relive with her the time 15 years ago when he was 40 and she 12, and he initiated a sexual relationship with her.
For it, he was incarcerated and she became frozen in emotional trauma. But now, in the trash-strewn break room of the manufacturing plant where he has started a new life, they recall those earlier days like they were yesterday. Ray is on the defensive from the start, as Una regurgitates her painful memories, and both performers are remarkable in this verbal — and occasionally physical — battle royal.
There is less box office drawing power in Stephen Karam’s The Humans, but a fine ensemble cast brings this haunting drama of family anxiety to harrowing life. Things do indeed go bump in the night at the shabby Chinatown duplex where 30-ish Brigid Blake (Sarah Steele) and her live-in boyfriend Richard (Arian Moayed) have bravely invited her Scranton clan for Thanksgiving dinner.
Grandma Momo (Lauren Klein) has succumbed to dementia, Brigid’s mom Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) is a religious scold, dad Erik (Reed Birney) is stressed out and as we will learn, for good reason. And her older sister Aimee (Cassie Beck) has had a catastrophic year, losing her job as well as her lesbian lover and being diagnosed with a serious intestinal disorder. Stir well — again by the resourceful director Joe Mantello — add a few supernatural or at least allegorical touches and watch the fireworks ignite.
The Humans may well be this year’s Best Play Tony winner, but even if not, it will certainly be performed a great deal at regional theaters around the nation.
Tomorrow: Bright Star, a new musical by Steve and Edie (Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, that is)