Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Blackbird and Dying City

Pearce Bunting as Ray and
Julianna Zinkel

It's a story that's all too common, and one so sordid that you might think it would make you want to look away. But you won't want to. From its first moments, with a harsh blast of nearly blinding light, Theatre Exile's production of David Harrower's Blackbird grabs your attention and never lets go for 80 gripping minutes.

When Ray was forty years old, he had sex with a twelve-year-old girl named Una. After serving three years in prison, Ray moved to a distant city, changed his name, and put his disgraceful past behind him as best he could. But now, fifteen years after the arrest, Una has tracked Ray down in the office building where he works. It's late at night, and most of the other employees have gone home for the evening. This will be Ray's night of reckoning for the damage he caused. And it seems at first that this will be a one-sided battle; Una is persistent in her accusations, and Ray seems weak and defeated. But why exactly did she wait until now to see him again? Is she angry because Ray abused her, or because he rejected her? And why exactly did Ray do it—and have either of them really moved on?

There are no easy answers to the often ugly questions Harrower raises. Yet it's a measure of Harrower's skill that Blackbird never feels exploitative or sensationalistic. This is, at its core, a story about two flawed and empty people who have dealt with their pain and guilt in different ways. It's not a black-and-white tale of a monstrous predator and his prey; the complexities seem to change by the minute, as Una gradually reveals a fixation that may be as dangerous as Ray's was. The playwright specializes in precise, cutting language that leads to the two characters baring their souls to each other in ways they never anticipated. It slowly becomes apparent that what these two felt for each other—and perhaps still feel for each other—is a twisted kind of love.

From the characters' awkward reintroduction until the ambiguous and shocking ending, the tension never dissipates in director Joe Canuso's taut production. As Ray, Pearce Bunting seems mild mannered at first, dealing with his shame in a way that makes it feel achingly palpable. Tall and respectable-looking, he seems to crumble before the audience's eyes. Bunting makes Ray tragically sympathetic as he pleads to be heard and understood, even though it's not clear he understands his own motivations. Yet when Ray eventually snaps, Bunting makes the reason all too clear.

Julianna Zinkel makes Una more than just a simple victim. Her angry outbursts feel frighteningly authentic as she lets loose the rage that has been simmering inside Una for fifteen years. Yet she also enjoys the turnabout that has left her, in her form-fitting dress and stockings, the one who now holds all the sexual power in the relationship. It's fascinating to watch Zinkel revel in every fluctuating facet of this complex character.

The harsh, clinical glare of Paul Moffitt's fluorescent lighting is perfect for a show that puts no one in a flattering light. Matt Saunders' set design is unfortunately realistic: a company lunchroom strewn with trash. "People just ... they expect other people to clean up after them," says Ray. That's not true of Ray and Una, who have spent years trying to clean up the messiness in their lives. When Blackbird ends, you'll walk out of the theater knowing that mess will probably never be cleaned up, but glad for the brief glimpse you've gotten into two sad, distressed, but endlessly absorbing lives.

Blackbird runs through March 1, 2009 and is presented by Theatre Exile at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $15-$30 and are available by calling 215-218-4022 or online at

Christopher Shinn's Dying City is another play that focuses on modern issues with a refreshing frankness that would have been unimaginable a few decades ago. And there's much to admire in Amaryllis Theatre Company's poignant production, sensitively directed by Stephen Patrick Smith. But Dying City ultimately suffers in comparison to Blackbird, because the plot in Dying City feels more manipulative and the playwright seems to be showing off his cleverness too much.

Set in Manhattan in 2006, Dying City focuses on Kelly, a therapist who is still mourning the loss of her soldier husband Craig in the Iraq war a year earlier. She is visited one night by Craig's twin brother Peter, a gay actor who has just deserted the stage in the middle of a production of Long Day's Journey Into Night. (Say, isn't that a play about a family with two combative brothers? Hmm ...) Interspersed with the scenes about Peter are scenes that flash back more than a year to Craig's last night in New York before his return to active duty. The "dying city" of the title refers to Craig's description of Baghdad, but it also seems to refer to New York, the city that all three characters are trying to escape from in different ways.

There's a lot of talk about therapy, sex, Kelly's obsessions with "Law & Order" and "The Daily Show," and just how happy the characters really are (the answer: not very much). Eventually some big secrets are revealed that force the characters to make big changes.

Pamela Sabaugh is superb as Kelly. Her journey from passive acceptance to action is strongly defined, and a scene where she breaks down during an argument is heartbreakingly convincing. Meanwhile, actor Nathan Emmons has a tough challenge: playing both of the twins. It's a neat trick to see him change from one character to a very different one with only a change of shirt and a slight modification in his expression. Still, while his finely tuned portrayal of Peter never seems clich├ęd, his take on Craig does. This hardened Army man keeps his brow furrowed and his jaw tense; he never smiles once, even in intimate moments with his wife. It makes one wonder what she ever saw in him.

Shinn's decision to have both twins played by the same actor is a gimmick, of course, and eventually the gimmick becomes predictable; we know that every time Emmons leaves the stage as one brother, he'll return in a few moments as the other one. That's not the only example of clunky writing in the script; the big revelation in the play's climax is forced by Peter reading one of Craig's private e-mails aloud to Kelly, but if Peter had a brain in his head, he'd know that the message would traumatize her. The playwright's hand is too evident here; the situation seems contrived, shoved into the play to force a confrontation. The characters suffer as a result. In Blackbird, revelations make the characters seem more intriguing; in Dying City, revelations make the brothers seem more duplicitous and dislikable.

Still, Shinn's insights into human nature are often rewarding, and they're spotlighted in this production. It's a shame that the play's lapses undermine the strengths of Amaryllis' production.

Dying City runs through February 22, 2009 and is presented by Amaryllis Theatre Company at The Playground at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $20 and are available by calling 215-564-2431 ext. 93 or online at

Photo: Cory Frisco

-- Tim Dunleavy

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