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Jeff Daniels makes a powerful return to 'Blackbird' alongside a captivating Michelle Williams

Jeff Daniels makes a powerful return to 'Blackbird' alongside a captivating Michelle Williams
A searing production of David Harrower’s unsettling drama with Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams. (Brigitte Lacombe)

Jeff Daniels has returned to Scottish playwright David Harrower's disquieting drama "Blackbird," and his experience in the play has not only deepened but galvanized his performance.

Excellent the first time around when he played opposite Alison Pill in Joe Mantello's 2007 production at Manhattan Theatre Club, Daniels has graduated to brilliant in the Broadway premiere at the Belasco Theatre. Here he shares the stage with the intensely captivating Michelle Williams, in a production by Mantello that perfectly calibrates the volatile sexual chemistry of the leads.

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Daniels' portrayal seems more urgently embodied than before. The actor is nearly a decade older than when he first performed the part, and he uses his bulkier frame to great tragicomic effect — his middle-aged body serving as a bulwark against the mortality that is invisibly yet palpably encroaching onstage and off.

"Blackbird" is a small, strange and for some no doubt off-putting drama about a woman who returns to confront the man who sexually abused her when she was a 12-year-old girl. The subject matter might require trigger warnings for everybody. But the most dangerous aspect of the work, set in a nondescript office break room spilling over with trash, is the playwright's refusal to moralize.

In this gripping, barely-90-minute work, in which two characters are sealed off in a semi-private fishbowl, passion is indistinguishable from pain, fear from desire, predator from prey. There's a clear victim, but has she returned for revenge or a reenactment of the crime?

Michelle Williams, left, and Jeff Daniels during a performance of "Blackbird."
Michelle Williams, left, and Jeff Daniels during a performance of "Blackbird." (Brigitte Lacombe / AP)

The play begins in the clipped, pugilistic rhythm of a David Mamet altercation and ends in the emotional bloodletting of a warped Sam Shepard romance. No point in asking whether Una, the character played with mesmerizing neuroticism by the waifish Williams, is closer to Carol, the avenging student in Mamet's "Oleanna," or lovesick May from Shepard's "Fool for Love." She contains both of these women, and the uncertainty of her motivation is what keeps the audience on its toes.

A suspenseful ambiguity similarly surrounds Ray's character. Played by Daniels with the flailing fury of a cornered animal, he's either a guy who'd rather not have to relive his one unforgivable mistake or a serial culprit desperate to maintain an innocent cover.

Harrower cunningly arranges the facts to heighten the stakes. Ray presents himself as an accidental child molester, a man who succumbed to the onslaught of a precociously sexual adolescent. After serving a relatively short but life-altering jail sentence, he changed his name, found a respectable if less prestigious job and remarried. The opportunity to put this humiliating incident behind him was facilitated by a stroke of chronological luck: The sex offender registry went into effect several years after his crime.

Una, who tracked him down after spotting him in a trade magazine photo, appears to him as a specter from his secret past. She describes herself as a ghost, and that is how Williams plays her: as a woman whose life has been suspended by their ...

And here's where things get uncomfortable. The word that seems to fit the characters' recollections of their sexual experience is "affair," but of course there can be no affair between a 12-year-old girl and a 40-year-old man.

"Blackbird" moves daringly from condemnation to longing. Harrower takes a controversial path in writing this as a twisted love story. But in refusing to simplify the emotional fallout of sexual abuse, the playwright reveals the insidiousness of the psychological damage, the way this sort of violation imprints itself on desire, essentially rewriting its DNA.

The word "trauma" doesn't need to be spoken to be understood. In this regard, "Blackbird" truly is a ghost story. Una and Ray are haunted by an experience they can neither integrate into their psyches nor permanently banish from them.

It's fascinating to observe the way different productions balance the aggression and the eroticism, the sadness and the suspicion. (Rogue Machine Theatre's 2011 staging in claustrophobic confines was particularly enlightening on the shifting power dynamics.)

Una's invasion puts Ray into a defensive crouch, but in Mantello's new production, I found myself doubting more and more Ray's capacity to reckon honestly with himself. Daniels subtly imbues a hint of sinister pathology in Ray's weary insistence that he's completely normal. Equally unnerving is the way Una's moral outrage transforms into amorous fury. Their ensuing pas de deux is part seduction, part demonic possession.

Daniels makes every moment of this faceoff vibratingly real. Even when practically bouncing off the walls in anxiety and resentment, he remains grounded in his character. Harrower has Ray and Una at one point toss garbage all over the lounge in a Shepard-esque flourish of hyperrealism, and Daniels treats this as the logical next step in his character's ambushment.

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Williams is more stylized in her delivery, but there's no doubt that she is fully experiencing her character's anguish. Her performance calls attention to itself, but never in a gratuitous way.

Una's personality doesn't have the luxury of coherence — she performs her identity in fits and starts, unsure of what she needs, afraid of what she wants. Williams' portrayal offers a series of X-rays into the character's interrupted development

What is most powerful about Mantello's production, however, is the bond between Daniels' Ray and Williams' Una. She seems to physically and emotionally regress into a girl again, luring him back into a shared past that tantalizes and horrifies in equal measure.

Broadway seemed an unlikely next step for "Blackbird," a play that thrives in close quarters. But this production, which unfolds with hypnotic concentration on Scott Pask's deserted office set, held me in its grip through the surreal intimacy of the staging and the fugitive passion of the actors.

Williams' wispy presence may seem like no match for Daniels' overpowering girth, but her acute beauty and distraught air allow her to hold her own against his formidable theatrical command. They fight to a draw, leaving us even more disturbed by a play that unsettles us not by telling us what to think but by provoking within us feelings that are impossible to reconcile.

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