Nothing can be more tedious than a play about drug-addicted down-and-outers who apply whatever energy they have to the process of ruminating about their seedy existence. Sure, their dead-end lives are probably valid, but it's just too easy for a playwright to wax profound when manipulating characters who have nothing better to do all day than be pissy and introspective.
On the surface, that's what awaits in Adam Rapp's Blackbird, now being produced by the Bang and Clatter Theatre Company in Akron. This two-person show is stuffed with all the expected detritus of miserable lives, including a chemical-weapons-dosed Desert Storm vet named Baylis, who bathes the pain from his chronic incontinence, bad back, and injured foot in Kentucky bourbon and free-floating rage. He shares his squalid floor space in New York City with Froggy, a 19-year-old heroin addict with a raging case of hepatitis.
Thus, all the elements are in place for a predictable march through the outer reaches of self-pity. But thanks to two immensely intelligent performances and a script that insists on wrestling these two losers back from the brink of stereotype oblivion, Blackbird takes flight as a love story that feels fresh and curiously uplifting, even as tragedy descends.
Played out on a tiny area bracketed on two sides by grandstand seating, with the audience literally a fly on the wall of this claustrophobic tenement, the play features Baylis and Froggy trying to craft a semblance of a relationship out of emotional scraps and shavings. She lashes out at him verbally while craving his strength and control, obeying his every command. He is sweetly protective of her, even as he battles with his inner demons and the people beyond the door who bedevil him constantly.
Although there are parts of Rapp's vision that never quite click -- including the continuing and supposedly ominous reference to a blackbird tapping outside their window (paging Edgar Allan Poe) -- he is able to weave a few threads of humor into this patchwork quilt of suffering. Referring to his days of visiting strip clubs (where he met Froggy), Baylis observes, "I'm tired of looking at tits. After a while, they just look back at you."
Sean Derry is totally absorbed -- and absorbing -- in the role of Baylis. Exhibiting the bone-deep focus that only borderline psychotics like Baylis can sustain, Derry slowly ratchets up the dramatic tension in spite of Rapp's tendency toward wordiness. As Froggy, Alanna Romansky perfectly captures the teetering balance between cuddly adolescent dependence and a worldview battered by unspeakable abuse. Though there are several slow patches, director Sean McConaha dexterously guides the play to its morose but entirely credible conclusion.
In this, its inaugural season, Bang and Clatter is a welcome addition to the theater scene. It has an aggressive yearlong performance schedule and intends to focus on modern American plays with an edge. If the ensuing works are as engaging as Blackbird, this aptly named group will definitely make some noise.