Off Broadway Reviews
Adapted by Simon Stephens from José Saramago's 1995 novel of the same title, Blindness is a gripping tale about a plague of sightlessness that spreads rampantly among the inhabitants of an unspecified city and brings social order to its knees. Our sole guide through the 70 minutes of mayhem that ensues is a pre-recorded voice that speaks through the headphones that have been provided to us (and scrupulously cleaned between shows). Yet even without an actor physically present on site, do not doubt for one moment that Blindness is a fully realized theatrical event, and one that is being presented exactly as it should be.
British film and Olivier Award-winning theater actress Juliet Stevenson provides the voice of the narrator and portrays the lead character, the only person who remains untouched by the disease. As such, she is placed in a position of literally bearing witness to the disintegration of the bonds of civilized interaction and of the chaos that follows in its wake. In addition, she becomes the de facto leader and protector of a small group of the afflicted. It is a task that she is ill prepared to carry out, and her anxiety level rivals that of her charges. The fact that much of the play takes place within the walls of an abandoned psychiatric hospital only adds to the ongoing thrum of apprehension.
That, essentially, is the core of the play. What makes it such a potent experience, apart from Ms. Stevenson's arresting performance and the relatability of the subject matter to the COVID pandemic, is the supremely intelligent way in which the entire enterprise has been put together. The source material, written by a Nobel Prize winner, is so compelling that it has previously been turned into a film, another play, and even an opera. Its adaptor, playwright Simon Stephens, previously won acclaim and multiple awards for his adaptation of yet another literary work, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Director Walter Meierjohann is known in Britain for helming powerful works by the likes of Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, and Eugene O'Neill.
The production elements are equally strong. The sound design by Ben and Max Ringham is astoundingly realistic, all the more so when the lights go out and we are plunged into darkness ourselves. More than once, and even though I knew it was not possible, I felt compelled to turn my head toward Ms. Stevenson's voice whispering in my ear, or to pull in my feet against what I perceived to be groups of people walking right in front of me. In addition, the entire space is decked out in Jessica Hung Han Yun's lighting design of horizontal and vertical colored fluorescent tubes that are raised and lowered at various points in the performance to add to the overall effect.
In the end, and despite the dystopian subject matter of the play, I walked away feeling unexpectedly cheerful and, for the first time in a very long time, with a real sense of confidence that theater is on its way home. As for concerns about indoor events of this nature, I have never felt more welcome or safe than I did in the super-scrubbed setting with its socially distanced seating arrangement. Everyone is watching with bated breath what is happening at the Daryl Roth Theatre, but given the precautions that have been taken I feel confident in recommending Blindness to anyone willing to follow basic health guidelines.