Danny and the Deep Blue Sea | 1hrs 20mins. No intermission. | Lucille Lortel Theater | 121 Christopher Street | Through Dec 31
O.K., which of you kids did Danny and the Deep Blue Sea 20 years ago in scene study? Was it Aubrey Plaza, last seen scowling through the second season of The White Lotus? Or maybe her co-star Christopher Abbott, on screen next month in the buzzy Poor Things? My money’s on Jeff Ward (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), a performer making his Off Broadway directing debut. What else could explain this unnecessary revival of John Patrick Shanley’s two-hander, in which troubled Bronxites meet rude, fight, make love, fall in love, fight some more, fight again, and then limp toward possible happiness? Packed with profanity, anguished sexuality, and high-decibel meltdowns, Danny has been drama department fodder ever since its 1983 debut. Only this time, the acting students are Hollywood stars.
Like other edgy romances from its era, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune and Fool for Love, the subject is the double-edged power of love to wound and heal in the same stroke. “Between the devil and the deep blue sea” is the paraphrased adage; an impossible choice between damned union or drowning in solitude. Countless regional and Off-Off Broadway companies have had a go, but high-profile revivals come along only about every 20 years; the last being at Second Stage Theatre in 2004. Perhaps the next iteration will feature, say, Black or AAPI actors—even though Roberta (Plaza) and Danny (Abbott) identify as Italian American. Anyway, Danny is not strict naturalism, despite the grittiness of the setting and the street verité of the characters’ speech. Seated at separate tables in a mostly empty bar one night, Roberta prods Danny about his bruised knuckles and facial cuts. “Ain’t none a your fuckin business I lock horns with anybody!” the gentleman shouts. “Nobody crosses my fuckin line, man! They can do what they want out there, but nobody crosses my fuckin line!”
Roberta knows all about trampling boundaries. Drawn to this compulsive brawler nicknamed “Beast” by his co-workers, she shares a stomach-knotting story about a transgression involving her father. Danny is barely fazed; he’s 29 and vows to stick a gun in his mouth when he turns 30; Roberta is 31 and lives at home, a single mom whose teenage son is being raised by her mother. Roberta hates her father; Danny calls his mother “a fuckin dishrag.” When she pushes him too far, he throttles her neck. Her croaking response? “Harder.” These two actually have a lot in common.
Shanley’s dialogue has the jab and weave of a drunken sidewalk fight, a rhythmic, blunt poetry that works like gangbusters with actors willing to bare all. Artistically, his grandfather was Clifford Odets and his nephew is Stephen Adly Guirgis. His people have a lot of above-the-neck problems. “I could bite your fuckin head!” Danny bellows. “I can’t stay in this fuckin head anymore!” Roberta wails shortly after. “If l don’t get outta this fuckin head I’m gonna go crazy! I could eat glass!” A few years later Shanley would explore a slightly less brainsick pair of New York lovers with the screenplay for Moonstruck.
For its first half, the 80-minute play keeps your attention with its dated but energetic battle of the sexes, but the longer we spend with these folks the less authentic they become. The scope is intimate to the point of claustrophobia; it contracts rather than expands. There’s only so many times you can watch these two take one step towards joy, and two steps back in shame or fear. By the hushed, tentatively hopeful end, the actors are crumpled on Lucille Lortel stage—practically below the sightlines of my row. What began as two rabid animals tearing each other apart ends as a whimper as they agree to share a cage.
Director Ward tries to add theatrical heft with a sort of pincer maneuver: he dresses the two locations in granular realism (meticulous and evocative sets by Scott Pask) and transitions between sections using the abstract language of dance (choreographed by Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber). It’s a bold move that makes sense—reinforcing the sordid solidity of the material world but releasing emotions in movement and music. John Torres lights a wistful, snowy view of Manhattan through the bar window and bathes the duo in red for their sensual mating dance. Kate Marvin’s sound design amplifies elements to shivery effect: a hypnotic “I Can’t Go for That” by Hall & Oates pours of a jukebox and later, Roberta and Danny’s miked pillow talk comes through speakers in audio extreme closeup. It’s evocative, alluring design, but excess window dressing for a small display. The minimalism of the original production smartly put the emphasis where it probably should be: on the actors. (Coincidentally, John Turturro, who originated the role of Danny, is playing a different man with love trouble two and a half miles uptown in Sabbath’s Theater.)
But what of the marquee names, everyone wants to know. Those familiar with Plaza’s limited (though enjoyable) repertoire of deadpan, sullen side-eye and bitter smirking will find the celebrity broadening her palette with glimpses into Roberta’s vulnerability, even her capacity for childlike delight—as when Danny compares her nose to a flower and her chin to a bird. Abbott immerses himself fully in the role, displaying abundant physical charisma and vocal control as a possible homicidal maniac. It’s his transformation that’s harder to swallow; when Danny starts to soften under Roberta’s affections, you’re not entirely sure he won’t turn around and whack her. Are both actors a bit too photogenic (and about seven years too old) to pull off this gutter-mouthed Romeo and Juliet? Maybe so, but don’t blame them: They didn’t have to audition.