Watching Blackbird, David Harrower’s celebrated new drama from London, is like hitting a patch of black ice. Young Una (Alison Pill) has, fifteen years on, tracked down Ray (Jeff Daniels), a man who sexually abused her when he was 40 and she only 12. You expect to see her angry recriminations and his ass-covering defenses early in the play. Daniels is at his best here: Sleeves up, tie down, he tugs frequently on his hair, giving himself a messy, roosterish plume—at once menacing and pathetic. You might also guess some of the places the story will go toward the end of the play. Pill, in the more difficult role, shows poise but not quite the range needed to deliver a long aria about the night that things went wrong for them.
But the stomach-turning surprise of this play comes in the middle, when Una and Ray stop sounding like aggressor and victim and begin to describe what sounds like a genuine, if extraordinarily messed-up, love affair. Harrower shows a malevolent brilliance in the way he shifts your emotions: One moment, you’re comfortably reviling an unforgivable deed; the next, without realizing how it happened, you’ve begun to sympathize. Nothing else in the show has quite that punch, but those few minutes’ queasiness are more than enough to make Blackbird the most disturbing play uptown audiences have seen since The Pillowman.