Review | ‘Blackbird’ is a fascinating look into a psychological relationship

The Kansas City Star

Shocking, funny, tragic, sad, thrilling, bleak — these are a few of the words with which you could describe David Harrower’s “Blackbird,” but none of them really convey the unique nature of this unsettling play about sex, love and loss.

The Living Room production, directed by Bryan Moses and featuring the superior talents of Scott Cordes and Vanessa Severo, is as grimly realistic as a Ken Loach movie with its convincingly trashed-out set and naturalistic dialogue.

Scott Cordes and Vanessa Severo in "Blackbird" (Kansas City Star)

Harrower’s characters speak in starts, stops and overlaps in a way that suggests David Mamet, but there’s a key difference: Mamet’s dialogue always seems an artful construction. Harrower’s characters sound like real people stepping on each other’s words and interrupting each other, sometimes aggressively.

The play is set in a break room at the company where Ray (Cordes) works, and where Una (Severo) has tracked him down. It’s the first time they’ve seen each other since he was 40 and she was 12. That’s when they had a sexual relationship that landed him in prison and altered her life forever.

Now Ray has served his time, changed his name and rebuilt a life and is stunned when he’s suddenly confronted by Una, whose purpose isn’t initially clear.

As the play unfolds in roughly 90 minutes we learn a lot about the nature of their relationship and its aftermath. Ray doesn’t really see himself as a pedophile and Una doesn’t consider herself simply a victim of abuse. Their feelings are complicated and as they talk we learn why: They were in love.

The state of being in love is, of course, marked by many of the symptoms of psychosis, or so the experts tell us, and the story of Ray and Una in many ways fits that model.

The actors handle this difficult material with breathtaking commitment. Cordes delivers an infinitely subtle, quiet performance as Ray goes through wrenching changes when suddenly confronted by his past. Cordes is a riveting presence, whether he’s speaking or listening.

Severo has opportunities to tap into her comedic skills because, yes, this show delivers some laughs, despite the subject matter. But she’s at her best during a long, intense monologue in which Una recounts her experience on the last day she and Ray saw each other and her subsequent experience as an officially designated victim and social outcast. As Severo negotiates Harrower’s vivid, visual narrative, you could hear a pin drop.

Harrower’s play concludes with a shocker — one that I won’t give away — and leaves his viewers with much to think about. The show is fascinating look into a psychological relationship. It’s provocative and deeply disturbing. And it sticks with you.

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