Before Blackbird | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Before Blackbird

An early David Harrower play disappoints.


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What with the smash-hit run of David Harrower's Blackbird at Victory Gardens Theater last summer, it looked like the folks at Steep Theatre were lucky to land the midwest premiere of an earlier play by the same author. But as it turns out, Harrower's 1998 Kill the Old Torture Their Young is interesting mostly for demonstrating how much better he got in the nearly ten years between writing the two scripts.

Harrower sets Kill the Old Torture Their Young in his native Scotland, but Kathryn Walsh's production moves the action to America—and since a copy of Time Out Chicago shows up onstage, you can guess where in America we're supposed to be. The city is presented as a prominent character: hometown boy Robert Malloch, now a successful documentary filmmaker, wants to anatomize it in his next opus. But Walsh's decision to change the setting only underscores Harrower's essential vagueness. Neither the place nor the characters are specific enough to register as anything but metaphors, so it really doesn't matter exactly where or who they are. In fact, the first person we meet is a guy known only as the Rock Singer; he kicks off the play with a self-conscious monologue in which he refers to himself in the third person and muses on whether airplanes stay aloft through physics or the combined will of the passengers and crew.

Where Blackbird unfolds as a single act, in 80 tense, real-time minutes, Kill the Old Torture Their Young uses a cinematic structure featuring short scenes spread over several days and two indulgent acts. Dan Stratton's flexible set incorporates a spare assortment of movable platforms and steel window frames to suggest the various locales, but the supposedly gritty flavor of the city never comes through, even during an unmotivated act of violence late in the play.

Harrower's script presages the sludgy we're-all-one homilies of Paul Haggis's 2004 film Crash, except there's no racial divide here: everybody in Harrower's Everytown is white, which makes for a pretty unbelievable portrait of any major city anywhere in the world. The failures to connect begin when Malloch's chauffeur, a borderline-psychotic wannabe actor named Darren, misses him at the airport and they multiply from there. "These people are bred in secret camps to impede and obstruct," Malloch complains to harried producer Steven when he's told about difficulties involved in obtaining permits from the city fathers.

We briefly meet random capitalized characters like the Woman in Robes, who fulfills the Mysterious Oracle function, and the exasperated Birdwatcher, who only wants to be left alone (and given how depressed most of the other characters are, who can blame him?). A sweet, baffled secretary named Heather falls for the tortured, priggish filmmaker, and there's a cutesy relationship between a young, angelic woman—actually named Angela—and the cranky old man who lives upstairs from her. Almost all of these people's paths cross in increasingly unbelievable ways that never really raise the dramatic stakes. Harrower isn't interested in portraying their lives—he wants to pontificate about how empty their lives are.

Birds, flight, and falling are major themes. Paul, the cranky old man, is also a bird-watcher (but not the Birdwatcher), harboring the triumphant memory of the one time he saw an eagle in flight and mourning a dead starling he's found outside his window. He tells Angela that at dawn "each bird only sings to let the others know that it didn't die during the night." A magazine item about an exhibit on African bushmen—who believe that when they die a falling star symbolizes their passing—inspires the Rock Singer to try his hand at a new song. It's painful.

A few performances overcome the corny material. Julia Siple doesn't have a lot to work with as Heather but somehow gives the unaffected working girl an appealing and rooted presence. And Peter Moore brings flashes of sympathy to Malloch, despite the broodiness and self-pity written into the character. On the other hand, Niall McGinty telegraphs Darren's desperation early on and can't build to the frenzy required later.

There are passages in Harrower's play that have a quiet, poetic intensity to them. But anyone looking for the moral complexity and emotional nuance of Blackbird will be disappointed. Dereck Garner's Rock Singer wears a T-shirt with an image of an ouroboros on it, and like the mythical serpent, Harrower's play spends too much time chasing its tail.

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