DANNY AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA; Christopher Abbott and Aubrey Plaza Circle Moonlit Waters — Review
John Patrick Shanley’s 1983 play, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, is a one-act, romantic two-hander in the classic ‘80s mold. If you caught the recent Broadway revival of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, or have seen undergrads perform scenes from plays like Prelude to a Kiss, or even Fool for Love, you get the gist: tough talkers meet, talk tough, soften up. I suppose, with “Don’t Stop Believin’” setting that decade’s tone, that the idea of two strangers meeting in a smoky room before sharing the night was somehow invigorating. But it’s mainly an acting exercise; a chance for two sharks to circle the waters of attraction while trying out different tactics.
So though not much unfolds in this work that could be considered novel, a handsomely staged revival with Christopher Abbott and Aubrey Plaza at the Lucille Lortel makes a winning enough case to watch its two stars sink their teeth into the 80-minute show.
Christmas lights are strewn throughout the back room of a dive bar in the tableau of isolation which opens the show, a snowy window at the center of Scott Pask’s melancholy set, lit by John Torres, looking out at the jumbled Manhattan skyline. The buildings are prosperous but impossibly distant — like the built-in blunder of the Tower of Babel, or the romance of Mont Saint-Michel.
It doesn’t take long to get that Danny (Abbott) and Roberta (Plaza) are not built for sweet talkin’. Something draws them toward conversation and each does their best to push the other away before they start revealing things about themselves at the breakneck pace only writers can conceive. No matter. Soon enough, Jeff Ward’s spirited direction calls Shanley’s bluff, hiding the barroom and moving the pair downstage for a balletic love scene charged with the selfishness and selflessness that could only be created by two people who desperately need fulfillment. (Bobbi Jene Smith & Or Schraiber share co-movement direction credit; Drew Leary, the fight choreography).
What happens next is a meditation on romantic possibility. Faced with the prospect of love, which is our real self: the moonlit dreamer voicing what they want, or the sober pragmatist facing away from the sun? The lovers’ temperament can be as phony, depressing, or earnest as the fake moon which Roberta’s neighbor has set up outside her window, and the actors fiercely commit to the shaky possibilities of one night’s pas de deux.
Abbott and Plaza make a radiant, inevitable pairing; both having outgrown their roots in indelible, early Millennial series into appealingly complex careers. Tasked with playing the sexy Bronx boy whose inchoate poetics outweigh his muscles, Abbott makes a beefy meal out of his character. In her stage debut, Plaza is less assured but acquits herself as one to watch, bursting out of her good-Italian-girl linen dress (Arianne Phillips did the costumes) with compelling angst and desire.
With its brisk runtime, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea doesn’t quite give itself the space its lonesome sharks need to fully size each other up. But, like a plastic moon outside a ratty Bronx window, flicking on and off along its pre-set timer, it still lights up when it needs to.
Danny and the Deep Blue Sea is in performance through January 7, 2024 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre on Christopher Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here.