The heroin-flick genre has been given trendy appeal by movies like Drugstore Cowboy, Train-spotting, and Requiem for a Dream. Yet addiction is dramatically boring. What could be more tedious than watching the destructively repetitive process of someone spiraling down and hollowing out? Filmmakers have dealt with this narrative challenge in two ways: experimenting with form to take us inside junkie consciousness (William Burroughs’s warped prose provides the artistic template), and rubbing our noses in the moral and physical squalor of the disease. Playwright Adam Rapp opts for the latter in his theatrical portrait of down-and-out druggies. Set in a barely habitable SRO, this two-hander between a Gulf War veteran and a hepatitis-stricken waif lingers over the gross-out details of life on the Lower East Side smack trail. Though prostitution, violent assaults, and parental abuse are background issues, the action of the piece is mostly circular talk, leavened with bed-wetting, adult diaper hygiene, and general body rot.
The blackbird of the title intermittently taps on the couple’s window, distressing Baylis (Paul Sparks), who wants no reminder of unperverted nature, while mildly diverting Froggy (Mandy Siegfreid), who’s too feverish to respond to anything (other than a needle) with genuine passion. But the play resists any kind of poeticizing—it’s all gritty portraiture, evoking horrified sympathy for the characters (whose sorry histories are strategically sketched in) and a palpable sense of tragic waste. Imagine Beckett’s blasted figures without the linguistic lilt or insidious comedy and you’ll have some idea of Blackbird‘s overall theatrical effect.
Rapp’s direction only heightens the torturous naturalism. Sparks and Siegfreid don’t so much perform in this hell as slowly inhabit it. No foggy-brained gesture gets rushed. Their work is detailed, unselfconscious, and totally praiseworthy. And I couldn’t get out of the theater fast enough.