WHERE Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St.
INFO $39-$135; 212-239-6200, blackbirdbroadway.com
BOTTOM LINE Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams in harrowing drama of pedophilia.
He hulks, but looks more freaked out than scary. She may once have had the delicacy of a forest creature, but the ravages of survival have hardened her into a dried bundle of twigs. They are both so wired, so damaged, so residually attractive that the current between them seems to singe whatever protective shields they thought they wore before he rushed her into the employee lunchroom.
Such is the setup for “Blackbird,” the harrowing drama by the aptly named Scottish playwright David Harrower, about the agonized reunion between Ray, a man who went to prison at 40 for having had sex with Una, his neighbor’s 12-year-old daughter, and that child-woman, now grown up.
Whatever doubts I had about Jeff Daniels’ return to a character he played Off-Broadway in 2007, this riveting, visceral, uncompromising revival makes misgivings irrelevant. Again directed by the peerless Joe Mantello and now co-starring the extraordinary Michelle Williams, the drama feels more psychologically profound than what had earlier seemed an admirably austere but stagy 80-minute answer to the voyeuristic question raised by such wildly unseemly couplings — you know, what were they thinking?
Of course, that was years before we got to know Daniels as a darkly complicated Will McAvoy in “The Newsroom.” In the earlier production, the actor used his accumulated nice-guy goodwill to keep audiences from loathing Ray before they can begin to contemplate forgiveness.
There is no attempt to make us like this Ray, just to make us imagine what it might be like to be in his shattered nervous system 15 years after the life-altering night of consensual (or as consensual as such a night can be) sex that the law prosecutes as pedophilia.
Williams, who wipes away all bad memories of her Broadway debut in “Cabaret,” matches him layer for complicated layer as Una, who has hunted him down in bare legs and a little gossamer flowered dress (costumes by Ann Roth) that simultaneously telegraphs her childlike, rag-doll beauty and her youth that ended before pubescence.
Una has found him and ambushed him in the office (a perfectly soulless, trash-covered room by Scott Pask), where he has taken on a new identity and has a new life he is in danger of losing. We better understand the stakes, but don’t know what she wants. Neither does he and, after her stunning monologue about that night, we still don’t know.
But they know each other and we know them with an intimate intensity that’s almost hard to watch. I used to think the Olivier-winning play was less primal than “Lolita,” and less imaginative than Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive,” another play that deals with pedophilia. Not anymore.