Adam Rapp's new play, Blackbird, is having its American debut at Pittsburgh's City Theatre. It is a grim story of two people who are at the end of a long line of unfortunate circumstances. The view that Rapp provides, as brought to the stage by an excellent cast of two and director Tracy Brigden, is fascinating, spellbinding, and touchingly poignant. On paper, the play might sound like a depressing evening of theatre, a view of squalor, pain, and despair that would make you avert your eyes in embarrassment. But in presentation it is an extremely straightforward exposé of the private lives of two people clinging to each other.
Baylis (Michael Shannon) is a Gulf War vet who has tried and failed at several careers, receiving a severe back injury from his last job with a moving company. His marriage ended in divorce, due to several kinds of failure, and he is a very angry man; the anger often manifests itself in violence. Froggy is a 19-year-old runaway. Having fled an affluent and abusive home, she is part child, part life-weary woman. Baylis met Froggy when she was a stripper in a club. They are both drug addicts, he is incontinent, and she is deathly ill. And it's Christmas Eve.
Taking place in Baylis' Canal Street room (with no running water), the play allows each character's story to unfold slowly and carefully. There are few slow spots; each minute in the two hour production is important and compelling. Baylis and Froggy are very different personalities but they complement each other and the strong connection they have is the one saving grace in their lives.
Both roles in this two-character play are extremely challenging. As Froggy, Mandy Siegfried is captivating. Careening from drug deprived twitching to childlike patter ("Groovilicious") to gut-wrenching pain, both emotional and physical, Siegfried creates a sweet lost soul. The role of Baylis is completely inhabited by Michael Shannon. He's locked in a downward-spiraling world and he's rightfully frustrated and angry about it. Because of their acting talents and because of Rapp's carefully constructed characters, Baylis and Froggy earn respect instead of pity.
Set designer Anne Mundell and Lighting Designer Jim French provide the perfect setting for this production. Sound Designer Elizabeth Atkinson and Costume Designer Lorraine Venberg also bring their best to the stage.
Blackbird is a brutally honest play and this near perfect production is a very fulfilling and thought provoking evening of theatre. Congratulations to Tracy Brigden and the City Theatre for one of the highlights of the theatre season in Pittsburgh. Blackbird runs through May 18. To buy tickets call the box office at 412-431-2489 or visit www.citytheatrecompany.org. Blackbird contains adult themes, graphic language, and nudity.