Sarah Kane’s first play, Blasted, written when she was just 21, is making its New York debut at SoHo Rep nearly fourteen years after its London premiere. Blasted is neither the “disgusting feast of filth” that Jack Tinker of that city’s Daily Mail once called it, nor is it the masterpiece that it’s been mythologized to be in the wake of Ms. Kane’s 1999 suicide. Cleverly directed by Sarah Benson, Blasted is brilliant in places. Its over-the-top violence tracks the brutality of which Ms. Kane is reported to have believed the world is largely composed. The legendary violence of the play, while not gratuitous, is frequently exaggerated and redundant. It's needed, though, to illustrate just how one can be de-sensitized, over a span of years or even a few hours, to unbelievable acts of destruction and examples of human misery. The redundancy is also endlessly fascinating as one braces for the next act of savagery or assault—they only get more horrific. Only later does one realize that Ms. Kane has told us the same thing over and over. While the production’s press notes state that, ultimately, the play is a vision of “redemption and love,” I’m not sure I entirely buy that, and I wonder whether that bit wasn’t injected to pre-emptively soften the script’s many excesses.
The violence in Blasted follows a trajectory. Slights and insults start out small but hurtful in the microcosm of a hotel room, turn into physical assaults and later reach catastrophic proportions. Ian (Reed Birney) is habitually cruel to the tender Cate (Marin Ireland), a former lover who naïvely visits Ian’s Leeds hotel room because she wants to comfort him in his obvious physical (Cirrhosis? Cancer? Both?) and psychic distress. He rewards this act of kindness by calling her “stupid,” and makes fun of her stuttering and her tendency to suffer seizures when stressed. When she refuses his crude and pathetic sexual overtures, he rapes her.
Mr. Birney gives a startling performance as the prematurely decrepit and spiritually bankrupt Ian. Ian’s work as a journalist may or may not be a front for work with some sort of violent underground political movement. An unapologetic racist, he also chain smokes, downs gin the way others drink water, and carries a gun. He’s already had one lung removed and appears to be coughing out the other one. And he doesn’t care. He claims to welcome death.
Yet, Ian is not as tough as he pretends to be (Cate at one point calls him “soft”) and he has a strong instinct for preservation. Intrusions from the outside world—a ringing phone or room service—are suspect. We know we’re in a war zone but we don’t know why. There is much evidence that Ms. Kane was inspired by the horrors then taking place in Bosnia, and the apathy of her native England and the rest of the world.
The events on the outside invade the room in the guise of a depraved soldier (Louis Cancelmi) who holds Ian hostage. Soon, there is a bomb blast which not only destroys the hotel room but explodes the boundaries of this play itself—we are no longer dealing with space and time as Kane initially presented them. The characters are now in a world over which they have not even nominal control.
Cate has already escaped through the bathroom window. The soldier makes a confession of sorts to Ian about all the horrible things he has done and seen and why he does them. Then he brutally assaults Ian in various ways. If you’re concerned that I might be giving away the plot, don’t worry, the best—or worst—is yet to come.
Mr. Cancelmi struggles with some sort of accent that turns much of his communication into grunts. Perhaps that’s the point — to demonstrate just how human beings can become hideously bestial. The soldier, though, is the least credible “character” in this play. Anyone so informed by viciousness is unlikely to explain his rationale. Remarkably, Ian has several chances to attempt resistance, and perhaps hasten the death he appears to crave, yet never once takes the chance.
Blasted strives, really, to hammer home one major and fundamental point, and the orgy of violence, sexual and otherwise, that ensues is the vehicle through which Ms. Kane blasts us with her message. This play isn’t about the violence, per se. We’re inured to violence like this from watching films like Saw and Pulp Fiction. What this play appears to be saying is just how easily and unthinkingly we, when conditions are ripe, will commit physical and mental violence on other human beings.
The production itself is superlative. Louisa Thompson’s set efficiently replicates an upscale hotel room in all its coldness and antiseptic qualities. Later, the very same room is thoroughly transformed into a bombed-out ruin. It’s quite remarkable just how quickly Ms. Thompson and Props Master Sarah Bird accomplish these alterations. The play’s ending, too, is astonishing and staged, believe it or not, quite beautifully. Kane figuratively blasts the characters through the violence to another side, whatever that might be.
As bleak as Blasted is, there’s still humor in there. Ian’s vulnerability allows us to resist the temptation to loathe him completely; his reaction to his inability to commit suicide with an empty gun elicited chuckles among the audience members. He knows that Cate sees through him when he tells her that he does bad things to her because he loves her. We have to laugh at such exchanges. In the end, Cate is the one who rises above and adapts to this new wicked world.
Ultimately, Blasted illustrates just what contemporary theater can do when we let it. When much of what we see these days worships the trite and the transparently contrived, Blasted serves as a potent reminder that theater can be a trenchant political and emotional force.