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Review Roundup: BLACKBIRD, Starring Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams, Opens on Broadway - All the Reviews!

Opening night is tonight, March 10, for David Harrower's Blackbird, the Olivier Award-winning drama starring Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams, and directed by Joe Mantello. Blackbird is playing at the Belasco Theatre (111 West 44th Street) for an 18-week limited engagement through June 11, 2016.

BLACKBIRD tells the story of Una and Ray. Fifteen years earlier they had a relationship and haven't set eyes on each other since. Now she's found him again.

Let's see what the critics had to say...

Michael Dale, BroadwayWorld: How do you describe admiration for a display of such sad and stark emotional vulnerability without it feeling like objectification of the fictional characters who have gone through the experience, and those who are confronted by similar ones in real life?...In varying degrees, Williams and Daniels, both excellent, effectively confront the audience to feel sympathy for their characters as it becomes increasingly clear what emotions are for each other. On top of that, you can admire the actors for just the taking on the responsibility of using their craft to take them "there" eight times a week.

Ben Brantley, The New York Times: They make an alarming entrance, these two, setting off instant worry and wonder. They walk as if welded together, though whether in support, restraint or combat is unclear. Her eyes are wild and her bare legs wobbly, and he leads their stuttering steps with an angry, obdurate chin. If you saw them in real life, you'd consider calling the police. As it is, your first impressions of Ray and Una -- so intensely embodied by Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams in the Broadway production of David Harrower's "Blackbird" -- would seem to guarantee a satisfyingly fraught night at the theater. What follows is definitely fraught, with the sort of acting that triggers seismometers. The satisfaction factor is somewhat lower.

Mark Kennedy, Associated Press: It turns out there is a place more uncomfortable to be on Broadway than a bullet-ridden hut watching sex slaves try to preserve their humanity. That would be among the audience watching the harrowing -- and absolutely brilliant -- revival of "Blackbird"...Michelle Williams plays the spiky, vengeful and still-broken victim, and Jeff Daniels is the stressed-out, humiliated one-time aggressor. With this indisputably superb cast, the play ducks and weaves enough to take your breath away under Joe Mantello's taut direction.

Marilyn Stasio, Variety: Now on Broadway under Joe Mantello's technically immaculate (if overindulgent) direction, Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams play the two deeply troubled lovers (or is it predator and victim?) who meet again, 15 years after their affair (or is it crime?) was abruptly terminated...It was Mantello's directorial choice to go big with the emotions in this first scene, which heightens the drama but also pitches the passion so high that the actors can only take it up... and up... to the edge of hysteria...Both Daniels...and Williams...become more physically invested in the battle and more drawn to one another...But even at this high decibel level, the disturbing substance of the play makes it riveting.

David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter: It was nine years ago when Jeff Daniels first appeared in Joe Mantello's taut production of Scottish playwright David Harrower's volatile two-hander, Blackbird. Revisiting the play with the same director on Broadway opposite a sensational Michelle Williams, the actor now brings a noticeably deepened middle-aged gravitas that adds fascinating layers to his character -- of bitter defensiveness, corrosive dishonesty, subjugated desire, and ultimately, ice-cold fear. Unyielding in its needling focus, this riveting drama is a stark examination of love, pain and loss that's both compassionate and unforgiving, all of which helps it navigate the move to a bigger stage with a corresponding amplification of its emotional power.

David Cote, Time Out NY: Shock ought to have a shelf life, the way horror movies lose their power after repeat viewings...Yet years later, there I was at the Belasco, craning forward, then recoiling, as Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams clawed at each other's psyches and bodies, playing ex-lovers or, to be precise, a pedophile and his victim...Blackbird is a comfortless 80-minute reckoning of arrested time and soiled innocence...Vocally, Williams is doing something interesting . She speaks in a halting, affected manner, as if Una has been rehearsing these speeches in her head for years, a girl trying to sound like an adult...As when he played Ray nine years ago, Daniels brilliantly rages, bargains, stonewalls and implodes...Time has been shattered for these walking ghosts, and we are transfixed watching them cut their hands, sifting through the shards.

Robert Kahn, NBC New York: Williams is venomous, fragile and, finally, stripped bare as she narrates a spellbinding account of Una's last encounter with Ray, at a beach-side hotel in a town far away enough from where they both lived that they wouldn't be recognized...In [Daniels] hands, it's apparent Ray knows what he did was wrong, but also clear that he doesn't believe he was one of "them" -- the kind of man who belongs on a sex-offender registry...After Una tells Ray her father died some years back, Ray moves to comfort her, touching her back in the warm way a friend might. The way Williams reacts feels pointedly truthful. Joe Mantello's direction is as taut as in "The Humans"...I'm genuinely surprised a piece of this intense nature has made it to Broadway. "Blackbird" is a small gem, here in the hands of two gifted actors.

Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal: David Harrower's "Blackbird," a pruriently manipulative tale of pedophilia that made a lot of noise off Broadway in 2007, has finally made it to Broadway in a big-stage revival closely similar to the small-scaled production that I reviewed in this space nine years ago...It's a have-it-both-ways shocker that seeks to make us sympathize (but not really!) with a man (Mr. Daniels) who molested a 12-year-old girl (Ms. Williams)...

Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News: Michelle Williams's girlish and haunted face is so eloquent in "Blackbird," you might wish you had binoculars for a closer look...Williams's Broadway debut, in "Cabaret," was so wispy she practically disappeared, but now she's commanding. She's believable and shattering as this damaged young woman. Daniels, ideally cast as an average guy-next-door, is her match. He convinces as a man on the edge, a shifty bird on a wire. The play itself isn't quite as successful...it takes time to settle into believable rhythms...Still, "Blackbird" is taut, twisty and provocative. There's value in works that make your mind fly to uncomfortable places and send out cries you can't unhear.

Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post: ...had Michelle Williams made her Broadway debut in "Blackbird" instead of "Cabaret," she'd have been hailed as a major new stage star, because what she pulls off in David Harrower's 2005 drama is shattering...By play's end, 80 minutes later, both actors look drained. You'll be shocked, yet strangely elated -- the sign of powerful theater.

Linda Winer, Newsday: 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...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...Williams, who wipes away all bad memories of her Broadway debut in "Cabaret," matches him layer for complicated layer as Una.

Elysa Gardner, USA Today: Williams brings more of that slow-burning, nervous intensity to Una...Part of Blackbird's potency lies in Harrower's refusal to make Una either pathetic or especially likable, even as her utter devastation is revealed. Ray, similarly, is no two-dimensional monster; though he seeks to deny his demons, he has plainly done some battle with them...Daniels' performance, which was superb nine years ago, is better here -- at once more vital and more aching in its weariness, and still beautifully shaded, so that we see Ray's capacity to deceive himself and others. As his frustration and anger tip over into something more dangerous and sad, it becomes almost painful to watch the actor, but impossible to look away.

Matt Windman, amNY: It is a lean and muscular piece of drama, where two emotionally damaged characters with a terrible past are brought together for an uncomfortable reunion that is sure to end in further disaster and trauma. Mantello...once again shows how he can draw out fully-developed performances from great actors that are both believable and richly detailed. The interplay between Daniels and Williams could not be rawer or more dramatically charged. From the start, Daniels is jumpy and terrified, while Williams starts off as playful and confident and then lets her guard down in reliving the past.

Jeremy Gerard, Deadline: Broadway loves a fine romance and nowhere are the sparks showering down more heat and crackle than the ones being thrown off by Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams in Blackbird...Their rapture is murderous. They want to annihilate each other. This is the electrifying production that this season's revival of Sam Shepard's Fool For Love aspired to be...Daniels and Williams are so devastatingly into David Harrower's stem-winding tale of an illicit conjugation, that by the time the lights came up I felt as spent as the actors themselves appeared to be.

Robert Hofler, TheWrap: The marvel of Daniels' performance then and now is that his Ray could just be a big liar...He keeps us guessing...Williams means to give a big, bravura performance that starts at a white-hot pitch and descends into near madness...Her performance as Una is mannered to the point of distraction. It's as if the sexual abuse her character suffered 15 years ago has caused not only a speech impediment but uncontrollable physical spasms that now affect her walk, gestures, and facial expressions. As a film actress, Williams can be subtle and nuanced. On stage, she's the opposite: showy and contrived. The result is an imbalance in performances that seriously undermines the drama between an unrepentant offender and his lost victim.

Jesse Green, Vulture: Without in any way glamorizing the situation, Blackbird so complicates the questions of consent and trauma and recovery -- and even love -- that it would be difficult to look at any of these subjects the same way again...Una is a victim, yes...Still, she is not so clearly innocent. As played with devastating rawness by Williams, she is alternately viperish, vengeful, sarcastic, bizarre, and desperate to reconnect...Similarly, Ray is drawn as richly and provocatively as possible, getting as far from ambient stereotypes about the pedophile personality as can reasonably be achieved...Daniels goes so deep into the man's depravity that he seems to come out the other side, in a place of honesty...Daniels...has not merely redecorated his earlier performance but done a gut job on it, starting over on deeper foundations.

Joe McGovern, Entertainment Weekly: The material is self-evidently dark but the presentation is unrelentingly glum and lifeless..the play feels too severe and clandestine for such a big house...But the reason why audiences are drawn to the drama is because of the two plumb roles that offer a pair of performers the ultimate emotional tussle...Williams and Daniels are more than up to the challenge of going down the play's very dark road...And it just so happens that Daniels and Williams have both been working long enough as actors that we can picture what they would have looked like together. That my mind even went there is a testament to the play's dangerous pull. B

Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune: Even with stars like Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels in the lead roles, and direction by Joe Mantello, "Blackbird" is far from a typical Broadway drama. For some of those attracted by the bold-face names, it surely will come as a sparse shock, a tough, toxic 80-minute ride into the corporate gray of fear and regret...this drama -- which I regard as one of the best pieces of writing of the last decade -- offers the uncompromising actress Williams the rare opportunity to contort body and soul into a character...What makes Williams' performance so distinctive and, to my mind, remarkable, is the way the corruption in her character's soul seems to occupy the limbs of the actress.

Christopher Kelly, NJ.com: Michelle Williams tears up the stage, literally and figuratively, in "Blackbird"...the "Brokeback Mountain" actress lurches from defiance to pleading, sputtering rage to romantic desperation, offering up an unforgettable portrait of a doomed soul who has long since lost agency over her own emotions. It's a half-terrifying, half-thrilling high-wire act that leaves the actress visibly exhausted -- and the audience in awe...directed here by Joe Mantello ("The Humans"), "Blackbird" is an unrelenting, unapologetically grim vision. But whether this 90-minute piece is actually saying anything new or original about the human condition -- or simply rubbing our noses in the muck of it all -- is tough to discern.

Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times: Jeff Daniels has returned to Scottish playwright David Harrower's disquieting drama "Blackbird," and his experience in the play has not only deepened but galvanized his performance...Here he shares the stage with the intensely captivating Michelle Williams, in a production by Mantello that perfectly calibrates the volatile sexual chemistry of the leads. Daniels' portrayal seems more urgently embodied than before...the most dangerous aspect of the work...is the playwright's refusal to moralize...Daniels makes every moment of this faceoff vibratingly real. Even when practically bouncing off the walls in anxiety and resentment, he remains grounded in his character...Williams is more stylized in her delivery, but there's no doubt that she is fully experiencing her character's anguish. Her performance calls attention to itself, but never in a gratuitous way.

Alexis Soloski, The Guardian: Blackbird...is a distressing two-hander about the dangerous influence and magnetism of traumatic events. It courts ethical dangers, in daring to characterize the bond between abuser and abused as a kind of perverse love story...Under Joe Mantello's direction, there is considerable tension in the opening moments, not all of it calculated or purposeful. Daniels begins the play in such a paroxysm of fear and anger that one worries he will quickly exhaust himself...In Una's self-conscious performativity, Williams indicates an emotionally stunted young woman whose earlier ordeal has prevented her from ever establishing a coherent adult identity. As the play continues, she begins to exhibit a strong dissociative quality, showing the confusion she still experiences, the crossed wires of pain and desire...There are no weapons on display here...but this is the most lacerating play on Broadway this season.

Photo Credit: Brigitte Lacombe

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