Late August is a quiet season in L.A. theater. Typically, September comes roaring in with new productions in theaters large and small. Those seasonal rhythms haven't changed much, even with the slicing and dicing effects of the 2008 recession.
True to the season, this August has seen relatively few plays open, mostly in smaller theaters and parks. The best of what's around is the best of what has lingered from the spring and summer openings, thanks in large part to popular demand.
David Harrower's Blackbird, in a production by Rogue Machine at Theatre/Theater, is one such example. Having opened here in June, it's now been extended to Sept. 12. Harrower is a Scot, and his play premiered in 2005 at the Edinburgh Festival before transferring to the West End. It took only two years to work its way to the Manhattan Theatre Club, another two years to Chicago (Victory Gardens Theatre), and another two years after that to get to Rogue Machine.
That L.A. should be experiencing a play as fine as this six years after its premiere, on the bounce from New York and Chicago, is disconcerting, especially since it's not unusual. Len Jenkin's intriguing Margo Veil appeared here at the Odyssey Theatre this year, six years after its premiere at New York's Flea Theatre. Alan Rickman's controversial play My Name Is Rachel Corrie is finally coming to L.A. (Theatricum Botanicum), six years after its London premiere. The longer it takes to get such provocative new works produced here, the longer we're lagging in a national conversation.
Blackbird takes its title from the British slang expression for "jailbird." Like writer-performer Tim Crouch's The Author, presented earlier this year at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, Blackbird swims in the muck of pedophilia. And yet Blackbird is in most ways the antithesis of The Author.
Crouch, an Englishman, used the theme to depict an otherwise perfectly amiable British gent gawking (out of mere curiosity?) at Internet images of kiddie porn. Among Crouch's many points is the violence inherent in slippery-slope availability of almost any information we may desire. Crouch is also a satirist, placing himself and his fellow performers in the audience bleachers and using that hyperrealistic posture to mockingly reinvent a performance of his own play at London's Royal Court Theatre — which commissioned and premiered The Author. The ensuing awkwardness of telling the story from within the audience — allowing for the limbo of extended pauses and audience walkouts, be they real or staged, to take their course — poked fun at more general theatergoing customs and expectations. It was a sneaky way in to the deeper waters of violent collective fantasies and Internet porn.
Blackbird plays no such conceptual games. It's a straight-ahead drama set in a disgustingly unkempt lunchroom of some nondescript company having something to do with dentistry and pharmaceuticals. (Kerley Schwartz's garbage-strewn set is enough to provoke a hankering for some of the stronger antidepressants in the company's inventory.) The place is described by one character as "Like one of those low buildings you pass ... always one story ... cars parked outside, no clue what's happening inside. Only a digital clock thing on the outside telling what the temperature is."
With the play set entirely within this garbage-pit lunchroom, the Aristotelian, mystery structure is as precise as one of those digital clocks described. Late in the workday, a distraught-defiant 27-year-old woman named Una (Corryn Cummins) has burst in on some 56-year-old middle-management cipher named Ray (Sam Anderson), though she keeps calling him "Pete." He's reluctant to meet with her but appears trapped into doing so. There are shadows passing behind the stubble-glass windows, people leaving for the day, checking in and checking out, and much of the suspense comes from Harrower's Mamet-speak overlapping dialogue, through which we try, between the broken cadences and repeated words, to fathom what, exactly, is going on here.
It turns out she found him through a photo in a trade magazine and has hunted him down. What emerges through the 90-minute drama is a history, a love story and a need for reckoning between the two, who underwent a kind of divorce (though they were never married), having been wrenched apart 15 years ago by the taboo essence of their love. You'll quickly calculate that their affair, which we learn was consummated, occurred when he was 40, and she was 12.
It also will emerge that he served an extended prison sentence for his crime, and that he now lives with a woman to whom he has told the truth of his past. And yet he lives with the egregiousness of that crime — a terrible, terrible mistake, he tells her.
Curiously, that's not exactly what Una wants to hear — that a liaison that by her own admission destroyed her life was a mistake. Or that he regards it as a mistake. This is where the play enters Lolita territory, tiptoeing along a cotton thread between a spring-autumn love cliché worthy of mockery, and a discomfiting but truthful revelation upon the workings of two hearts. The delicacy, candor and earnestness of that investigation are what makes the play so courageous.
Through pedophilia, The Author dissected the exigencies of violence; Blackbird dissects the exigencies of love.
Among the reasons Blackbird can straddle that thin thread between self-parody and love story is the quality of the performances, under Robin Larsen's straight-on staging.
When Anderson's blusteringly earnest Ray insists to Una, repeatedly, that he's not a serial child-molester, that despite his obvious collapse of judgment and restraint he was obsessed with her not as an object but as a unique spirit, this is hardly news any father would want to hear, but Ray's truth rings true. And with it, a singular love of operatic destiny becomes a possible scenario.
That's what Una does want to hear, that if she was of value, perhaps she still is. Cummins' richly textured portrayal blends militance and heartbreaking vulnerability. And this is where the play touches upon her complicity in the present, and possibly in the past.
Perhaps what's taboo is forbidden not because it's so freakish but because it's so powerful that it must be stifled, for the sake and rights of children, and for the inherent abuses of power that usually come attached. These are issues of protection woven into the law, and into a standard of decorum.
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Woody Allen shattered that decorum when news emerged in the early 1990s of a tryst he'd had with his stepdaughter, Soon-Yi Farrow Previn, 35 years his junior. During custody proceedings related to Allen's split from Mia Farrow, and after Farrow discovered nude photographs of Previn taken by Allen, the judge called Allen's relationship with Previn "wildly inappropriate." Allen and Previn later married, and remain so.
Harrower's play sets us in the jury box, listening to the judge perched on our shoulders, and the defense of the accused. Somewhere between the two arguments, between propriety and desire, lies an unencumbered truth of what draws people to each other.
BLACKBIRD | By David Harrower | Presented by Rogue Machine at Theatre/Theater | 5041 Pico Blvd., Mid-City | Sat.-Sun., 7 p.m., Sun., 5 p.m., Mon., 8 p.m. | Through Sept. 12 | (855) 585-5185 | roguemachinetheatre.com