By Caitlin Kelly
Living in New York is, too much of the time, really hard and really expensive: rents, transit, gym memberships, groceries.
Unless you’re a 1 percenter, so many of its costly pleasures dangle forever out of reach, but one tremendous luxury within my reach, thanks to the Theater Development Fund, is access to affordable theater and music tickets.
Over the years I’ve lived in New York, it’s allowed me to enjoy excellent seats to popular musicals like Billy Eliot, Carousel and South Pacific and astonishing performances of plays like August: Osage County, Skylight, Awake and Sing! and Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, starring Robin Williams, a work that won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize.
Seeing favorite actors and actresses live has been a privilege in itself, faces and names we “know” from film or television, like Lauren Ambrose (of HBO’s Six Feet Under) and Edie Falco.
Theater brings a specific and immediate intimacy impossible to achieve through any screen.
This week brought me a $36 ticket, (regular price: $138), to see “Blackbird” at the Belasco with Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels reprising his role from 2007. I scored a fantastic seat, third-row aisle, in the mezzanine (first balcony) with terrific sightlines.
The Belasco, at 111 West 44th street, opened in 1907 and is exquisite, a jewel box in its own right. The walls are painted in deep-toned murals, the coffered ceiling emblazoned with heraldic symbols and its lamps are stained-glass.
Buying tickets through TDF, or the other discount options (like the TKTS booths), means grabbing whatever’s on offer and jumping. You need to have read some reviews or have a good idea when you have only a few minutes to decide which ones are worth your time and hard-earned money.
But Blackbird? Hell, yes!
This play, which runs 90 minutes without intermission, is emotionally exhausting — even the playwright’s name is Harrower. Indeed.
It’s been performed worldwide, from Milan to Singapore to South Africa to Tokyo. A new film, starring Rooney Mara, (who starred in “Carol” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”), is due out this year.
In it, 27-year-old Una returns to confront now 55-year-old Ray, who had sex with her when she was 12 and he was 40. It sounds weird and sordid but unpacks layer after layer of emotion, fear, damage and desire one might imagine possible.
It’s full-throttle theater, with both actors modulating rage and disgust and fear, the still and silent audience along with them.
You wonder where they summon the stamina to tear through it all, while swept up in the intensity. In one scene, they’re on the floor of a messy conference room, both of them throwing piles of trash into the air.
And eight shows a week? No wonder it’s a limited run of 18 weeks, which is still a really long time to grind it out full-throttle in this work.
I love Michelle Williams’ work and her willingness to tackle tough characters. If you’ve never seen the 2008 film “Wendy and Lucy”, it’s a grim portrait of a young homeless woman and her dog, a far cry from her 2011 portrayal of Marilyn Monroe.
As Daniels told Time Out New York:
This is not a safe choice. The tourists who come in are going to get their ears pinned back. As they should. The arts should do this.
As drama, the fateful meeting of Ray and Una was as compelling now as it was then. Unapologetically raw and full of terrible truths, the play confronts the audience from the first page on, never letting up, never letting go, tearing into those watching it as much as it does those of us on stage trying to survive it. Still, I was hesitant. Most roles are been there, done that. What cinched the decision to return was that Ray still terrified me.
Every actor knows you can’t run from the ones that scare you. It’s not the acting of the character nor is it the dark imagination it takes to put yourself through all of his guilt, regret and shame. To truly become someone else, you have to hear him in your head, thinking, justifying, defending, wanting, needing, desiring. The more I looked back at the first production, the more I saw what I hadn’t done, where I hadn’t gone. I’d pulled up short. Found ways around what was necessary. When it came time to truly become Ray, I’d protected myself. He’d hit bottom. I hadn’t.
From the first day of rehearsals for the new production, it was exactly the same and entirely different. Michelle Williams and I had the script all but memorized ahead of time, which was essential, considering the stop-start, off-the-beat rhythm of Harrower’s dialogue. The key to any play, especially a two-hander, is the ebb and flow, the back and forth between the actors. If ever there were a need for that elusive elixir called chemistry, it was now.
I saw “Hughie” two nights later, at the Booth Theater, built in 1913. I think it’s not nearly as beautiful as the Belasco.
The show is an odd little play, another two-hander, and only 60 minutes — of which about 50 are Whittaker’s. He was terrific.
The set and lighting were spectacular but I found it, written in 1942 and set in 1928, a bit too dated for my taste, with endless references to dolls and saps.
Have you been to a Broadway show?
Did you enjoy it?