The Beautiful Sadism of Theatre

Originally published here.

How permanent are our thoughts? Can we really conform ourselves to a new lifestyle or are we simply suffering, longing to revert the entire time? Or is this just my brain, defending a pedophile? There is an omnipotent and overpowering sense of discomfort from the start in Blackbird, starring Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams at The Belasco Theatre. Ray (Daniels) drags Una (Williams) into his office’s dismal break room, a bland and bureaucratic rectangle, littered with colorful and anonymously dropped trash, already smacking the audience in the face with a recurring motif from the start. When their conversation begins, it feels acted. It feels like I’m watching a read through of the play. The dialogue is choppy and sporadic, and the actors seem like actors rather than characters. But this is the point. They are acting for each other, shielding their primitive nature. Eventually the dialogue and acting subtly shifts into a more humanized process, particularly after a captivating monologue by Williams, in which a droning electrical sound and a foreboding dimming of lights gives her something resembling a black halo, sucking the energy and sanity out from her slowly. It is then that we begin to watch two pieces of meat let each other in to the darkest sides of their psyche. Ray, a middle aged man, must face the tornado of confusion, trauma, love and utter despair that is brought by Una, a young woman that had a three month sexual relationship with him when she was twelve. Ray is by no means locked in the room with her, but it is obvious that he would never go. Una’s intentions feel vague, and her voice, her tone, and stability are constantly decaying. The same goes with Ray, who more silently crumbles into a jabbering caricature of a false victim, his posture progressively slumping and his eyes growing redder and redder with time. By the end, there is nothing but darkness outside that room in the hallway, which was once full of light and undecipherable faces walking by, sometimes stopping to listen. At one point, it seems and feels inevitable and natural to the audience that the two become what they’ve been restraining deep inside of them, apes. They fling garbage everywhere and make the audience feel pity for the stage crew. They heave and scream and tear each other apart, admitting all of their sadism and reverting to the impulses of their id without saying much. During bows, Daniels and Williams are not smiling or proud. They are ashamed, crying, and eager to escape backstage. This play succeeds because it goes where few plays go. It gives that fucked up part of your head two names, Ray and Una. And yet, these two fucked up beings are totally normal. We are them, and this is undeniably a love story between them. It is a play full of romance, no matter how twisted the thought of that may be. The audience, after a standing ovation is silent, contemplating their awareness and acceptance of what had just occurred.

The stage is no stranger to such psychoanalytic work. A Freudian king of theatre is Neil Labute, and this play is strikingly reminiscent to Some Velvet Morning, but entirely different in its conclusion. Human authenticity is instead verified in this play, and there is no hidden side to these characters, as much as you want there to be.

There are shows that have survived the test of time and now stand as defining plays of the last century. Just down the street, Long Day’s Journey Into The Night is playing, with John Gallagher Jr. Jessica Lange, Gabriel Byrne, and Michael Shannon. In that show, an autobiographical portrait of a day in Eugene O’Neill’s life is given to us, and in the end, there is an eerie sense of nothingness in the audience. Just as this family lingers aimlessly on a foggy shore, the audience lingers for a second, feeling brain dead, unable to identify with any character and at the same time looking into a mirror rather than a stage. Mary (Lange) ends the show with a soft voice, broken from her morphine addiction, and we know this means nothing, because after tonight, tomorrow’s another day.

But in Blackbird, the audience is not left drifting through time, disoriented, confused, or devastated by 4 hours of emotional stress. Rather, in only an hour and a half, we are ripped apart, and what follows is catharsis, and then a permanent and unsettling realization of our most contemptible qualities. This show is giving the audience deadly bait, and we know it. Hell, we look for it, seek it out. We can’t look away, as much as we wish we could. It’s a long journey home after this show, no matter where you live. I suppose it was appropriate that my companions on the subway back were a mumbling homeless man and a dead rat.

Christian Triunfo, 2016