Sure, the main box office draws of the new off-Broadway revival of John Patrick Shanley’s Danny and the Deep Blue Sea are its two stars, Christopher Abbott and particularly Aubrey Plaza, the latter making her stage debut. But for all the star wattage, the real story of this production is the reintroduction of this early (1984) Shanley play, his second, to a new generation of New York City theatergoers. It’s not only a fascinating early expression of the playwright’s torridly operatic style, but a worthy, moving work that deserves this reappraisal.
The play is a two-hand romance, but the two central love interests are as far from your standard romcom protagonists as is imaginable. Danny (Abbott) is a violent, hot-tempered construction worker who has possibly killed someone in a barroom fight, while Roberta (Plaza) is a single mother with a dark familial secret. When these two volatile personalities meet in a Bronx bar one evening, the sparks that fly between them aren’t the usual light and frothy variety, but raw and bruising, emotionally and physically. For these two people, drawn together in their alienation from society, a threat of physical violence with a tinge of S&M is what counts as an act of love.
But Shanley, as later films like Moonstruck and plays like Outside Mullingar would solidify, is a full-blooded romantic, not a hard-nosed realist. Over the span of the three scenes that make up Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, Danny and Roberta show us different sides of their characters, surprising us with the depths of their soaring desires and tragic neuroses. Turns out, Danny, for all his brutishness, has a genuinely sensitive side and a desire for a more settled existence. The more overtly romantic Roberta, however, has a self-loathing streak, borne out of her troubled family history and religious upbringing, that leads her to potentially sabotage her own happiness. Even more than its heart-on-sleeve romanticism, it’s Shanley’s desire to unearth a working-class poetry in the souls of these two profoundly screwed-up characters that is deeply moving.