When the curtain comes up on this revival of John Patrick Shanley’s miniature classic Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (Lucille Lortel Theatre, to Jan. 7), so perfect is Scott Pask’s design—a third character in its opening scene—we really feel as if we too are in a Bronx dive bar in the dregs of late evening as its two bruised lead characters, Roberta (Aubrey Plaza) and Danny (Christopher Abbott) eye the bottoms of their glasses of beer and the wells of self-hatred they are both too familiar with beyond that. A picture window posits a glittering Manhattan far beyond them, a frozen snow globe of a world far away. They too feel frozen, if differently.
Shanley’s play is 40 years old this year, a favorite of acting students wanting to get their gnashers around its proudly pummeling text. Even before they’ve said a word to each other, we can see the snarls and screams inside both characters. It’s a meet-ugly that inevitably gets cuter, but not before the two characters put each other through two relentlessly dark nights of the soul, with screaming, shouting, and physical abuse to underscore all the pain.
Both are damaged, both are hiding secrets. The 80-minute run time may sound short, but given the emotional energy unleashed in front of us, the play, directed by Jeff Ward, can feel exhausting—as if we are trapped in a room with two people whose echoing, deeply damaged natures shouldn’t be yoked together, no matter how attractive they are and no matter how the text, you just know, will conspire to get them there. Trapped in a theater with them for almost an hour and half, you will gulp the cold night air on exiting.
Abbott and Plaza revel in the extremities of Shanley’s text, even if Danny—who may or may not have killed a man—seems to have a greater yen for self-preservation than Roberta, whose significant familial scar from the past seems too massive to consign to anywhere but a black hole always ready to engulf her at the first sign of salvatory light. That possibility of a future is symbolized in the ocean of the play’s title out of sight beyond the window of Roberta’s bedroom. Does she believe in its potential? Could Danny?
Fans of Plaza’s character from Season 2 of HBO hit The White Lotus will recognize the watchful, coiled fury she brings to Roberta, eyeing Danny both as conquest and also punching bag. The push-pull between her and Danny—the laughs and the fury, the testing of limits, confessions, and spat invective—takes us from the bar, via an enchantingly surreal dance, to Roberta’s bedroom. Here, oddly, the intimacy lessens rather than increases. Though they are in bed, and eventually—as daylight dawns—out of bed wondering where to go and what to do next, the distance between them grows as the possibility of being together hovers in and out of view.
Do you want these two to be together? Should they be? Maybe Danny should just get the hell out of there to the nearest subway, and both of them find good therapists, rather than become the next George and Martha in Virginia Woolf-waiting.
Does the play make sense in the way it eventually forces and resolves the issue? This critic isn’t sure, but as a sweaty, gravelly comedy and tragedy of two strangers finding each other, flirting with each other, recklessly and tenderly picking at each other’s emotional wounds, and then quizzically hunting for inadequate bandages, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea remains a juicy acting exercise—and a gustily intense experience for its audience.
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