Is it better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all? This philosophical question is raised in The Black Bird Returns, a dramatic love story playing at the 45th Street Theater at Primary Stages. Co-written by Alexis Kozak and Barbara Panas, the play focuses on former lovers Kat (Panas) and Cliff (David Walters), who quickly move to rekindle their old flame without giving much thought to the feelings of their current partners. This creates an obstacle that the script has trouble overcoming. We know that Kat and Cliff are truly in love with each other, but they convey this in such an unsympathetic manner that it is often hard to root for their happiness.
Kat's boyfriend, Roger (Douglas Lally), feels pushed away to the point where he glumly asks, "How would you rate me, as a B- or a C+?" When Kat hesitates, he probes, "Am I even on the honor roll?" Meanwhile, Cliff treats his trusting, pregnant wife, Amanda (Julie Jenson), like excess baggage. On a date, Kat asks him, "Are you single?" He counters, "Do you need me to be?"
Deep into Act I, in a desperate, melodramatic moment, Cliff confesses to Kat that he is dying of cancer. This would cast him in a softer light if he chose to inform his doting wife as well. Instead, he goes along with her pillow talk about what a good father he will be, never once hinting that he might suddenly and inexplicably drop dead before the birth of their child.
His affair is unmasked when a fateful day arrives and Kat is forced to call an ambulance from his house. When Amanda confronts Kat about her relationship with Cliff, she is coldly dismissed. Here, Amanda earns our heart with her pained, desperate pleas to know more about her husband's secret life, especially regarding his mysterious friend Tom. Kat folds her arms and refuses to tell the grieving widow that Tom is a beloved blackbird they once fed on a mountain.
The blackbird is a meaningful symbol to Kat and Cliff and comes from one of their last happy days together before the romance dwindled. And so, during an outing with Roger, Kat returns to these mountains to find the piece of Cliff she thought she had lost.
At this point, a spiritual moment is set to unfold when a loud, jarring noise suddenly fills the theater. It is an umbrella repeatedly opening and shutting in the tech booth to represent the flapping motion of a blackbird's wings. The sound effect may have the best of intentions behind it, but when amplified by a microphone it sounds less like an approaching bird than a winged dinosaur. It drowns out the low, tearful dialogue uttered by Kat as she tries to maintain the somber mood.
Fortunately, the play is armed with strong acting to hook you where the characters may not. Cliff may have a sleazy nature, but Walters has a sweet, boyish charm that shines through the dialogue. There is such a deep sincerity to his "I love you" that we almost forget he is saying it twice a day to two different women.
Lally is also a magnetic force as Roger, Kat's berated boyfriend. A lingering moment in the play is his crushed expression when Kat hollers at him for innocently cooing at a blackbird. His enthusiasm at spotting the bird sounds so genuine that it hurts to see how quickly it fades at the sound of his girlfriend's sharp voice.
Perhaps the doomed relationship story here is more about Roger and Amanda, the dejected lovers of Kat and Cliff. They know their relationships will always pale in comparison to their partners' first loves, but they both try hard to make things work. In this story they come off as good people who have been deeply hurt and are unloved by those they want badly to please. With luck, the next time the blackbird returns, it will be for them.