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Blackbird

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

On Christmas Eve in 1998, a man and a woman holed up in a tiny Canal Street apartment find themselves clinging to their addictions - to drugs, to life, and, perhaps most importantly, to each other. With the harsh outside world threatening to destroy what little serenity they've found, the biggest challenge they've ever faced might just be making it to daybreak.

Author Adam Rapp has pulled no punches in Blackbird, his blistering play that Edge Theater Company is presenting at the Blue Heron Arts Center. Rapp slowly strips away the couple's layers of artifice - however thin they might be - to find the damaged, yearning, and painfully human souls beneath. He so completely examines what their lives have become that the play proves equally riveting and difficult to watch.

Baylis (Paul Sparks) and Froggy (Mandy Siegfried) met by accident, but can now barely leave the other. Baylis, a veteran of the Gulf War, suffers from a herniated disc that makes walking painful and has left him incontinent, and he's constantly being threatened with a lawsuit over an alleged assault. Froggy, a stripper, is estranged from her family and victim to an almost incapacitating fatigue and skin discoloration. Both are addicted to heroin, and they're constantly tormented by a blackbird pecking away at what remains of the apartment's window.

While Rapp paints an almost unrelentingly bleak picture, he is more intent on focusing on the hope that sustains both Baylis and Froggy through hour after difficult hour. That hope shines like a beacon through the darkness of Rapp's world; though it seems as if each new possibility of redemption vanishes as soon as it appears, Rapp suggests that love can sometimes be enough to sustain one through even the most difficult times.

Baylis and Froggy not only need each other, but in turn need to be needed. And, even if in very small ways, they can give to the other things no one else can. This idea is fully realized in Rapp's writing and the performances Sparks and Siegfried give - no one is afraid to present these characters as unlikable or even downright impenetrable. All this results in some of the most uncompromisingly real characters to appear on the boards this season.

They succeed through theatre, but only barely call attention to the art that's allowing this story to evolve. Everything is in the details - the actors' words, facial expressions, and most minute movements push the play relentlessly forward; David Korins's set, which miraculously transforms the black box of the Blue Heron Studio Theatre into a claustrophobic coffin-like dwelling, interacts perfectly with Jane Cox's lighting; and the often jarring intrusion of ringing telephones or pop music (the sound was designed by Eric Shim) all help create an appropriately stifling, defeating environment for the actors and the audience.

Blackbird is not for everyone; its devotion to the darker, uglier underbelly of the human condition is so total that even more adventuresome theatregoers might find themselves turned off. That's an understandable reaction; Rapp's work frequently examines love and life in this way, and Blackbird can be startling even when compared to his previous ventures. It's no surprise, then, that Rapp has directed it so powerfully: his hand is evident throughout, the staging and the script working in concert to ratchet up and release tension as required to take audiences on an often terrifying emotional ride.

But the payoff is there, and the journey Baylis and Froggy make to overcome their problems and find each other - and perhaps peace of mind - is one rendered in heartbreakingly realistic hues. Rapp, Sparks, and Siegfried hold back nothing and leave you almost as battered by the end of the evening as Baylis and Froggy are. Draining and difficult as it often is, Blackbird transcends the painful to discover the beauty in even life's ugliest moments.

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Edge Theater Company
Blackbird
Through May 22
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission
Blue Heron Arts Center, 123 East 24th Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.868.4444