Adam Rapp's Blackbird is set in a tenement on Canal Street, but this Canal is hundreds of miles from the Gulf — at the worm-eaten core of the Big Apple.
On the brighter side, Elm Theater is a new and pleasant, small auditorium on Julia Street. The seats are on risers, so the sight lines are excellent. The chairs are padded, which is good, because Blackbird runs longer than two hours.
The grim drama is set in a squalid apartment with graffiti-covered walls. There's a dirty mattress on the floor and a desk with a bottle of liquor prominent amid the clutter. Two lovers share the space in a sort of heavy metal, low-life version of Romeo and Juliet. Froggy (Becca Chapman) is a teenage heroin addict who has worked as a stripper and turned an occasional trick. She has contracted hepatitis, and her skin is taking on a yellow hue. Baylis (Garrett Prejean) sometimes provides Froggy with her fix. He's a veteran from Desert Storm (the 1991 Iraq war), and returned from combat a ghost of his former self. He's hooked on drugs and is incontinent, perhaps impotent (Froggy calls him "Dickless").
The language is a roller coaster ride between extremes of down-and-dirty vernacular, like "f—king hepatitis, that's like cancer and shit" to celestial heights of forced lyricism: "I could be snow. If I was snow, I'd yell at you, because snow has a voice."
This world is more the creation of Sam Shepard than Dante. Its in-your-face realism provokes more disgust than empathy. By the second act, we're treated to shitting and pissing. Excretion is a natural human function, but is it necessary on stage? Shock value has its limits. But sentimentalists need not entirely despair — Blackbird takes place on Christmas Eve.
Under Laura Hope's direction, Prejean (artistic director of the Elm) maintains the psychotic energy of the wounded Baylis throughout the show. And Chapman gives us an enigmatically winning little devil of a Froggy.
Blackbird will not be everyone's cup of tea. A half-hour could and should be lopped off the script, and you'd still be left with some pretty unappealing situations. Nonetheless, the Elm Theatre clearly intends to take risks. — Dalt Wonk
Thru. Aug. 14
8 p.m. Thu.-Sat.
Elm Theatre, 220 Julia St., 218-0055; www.elmtheatre.org