In a performance space as intimate as PlayWright's Theatre, you can name the moment when a play has grabbed its audience. That moment came during opening night of Theatre Maxim's Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, when actor April Umbrianna blurted out her character's horrible secret. The smallish audience froze in its creaky old seats, and minutes seemed to go by before the actors resumed their cheerless, riveting dialogue.
This scene comes early in John Patrick Shanley's dark, sullen drama about a pair of misfits who hook up for a one-night stand. The explosive scenes that follow have all sorts of unpleasant things to say about life, hope and the redemptive power of love. Danny and the Deep Blue Sea is a tough piece of theater; I've seen productions that plod wearily to Shanley's hopeful conclusion, struggling for and missing dramatic highs that are right there on the page. I expected little more from Theatre Maxim, a novice company tackling a difficult program. I was gladly mistaken.
The show owes its success to brilliant performances of Shanley's complex characters, Roberta (Umbrianna) and Danny (expertly assayed by Strasberg student Sonny Shellito). She's a scrappy underdog; he's a New York tough who beats up people who ask him where he's going. Danny plans to kill himself on his 30th birthday, because he'll be washed up and "old." We meet him a few minutes after he's beaten up -- and possibly killed -- a stranger. Danny's come to a dark, smelly bar, where he encounters Roberta, who's there to get away from her 8-year-old son and the rest of her life. Within minutes, she and Danny are trading personal stories and, shortly after, their shouts are ringing out in loud squabbles and in dramatic pleas for forgiveness.
Shanley's story shifts quickly; one minute, Danny's a whimsical Romeo, imagining his and Roberta's elaborate wedding; the next, he's Rocky on a 'roid rage. On the night they meet, she tells him she loves him; the next morning, she says she lied and attempts to throw him out. Throughout, the shift from friendly to fierce always takes us by surprise. When Shanley has Danny, the tough, mean-spirited goon, confide that he wants to be a bride all dressed in white, his confession comes while we're still recovering from his last violent tirade.
In one of the author's cleverest setups, Danny and Roberta retire to her room, which is decorated with only a bare mattress and a dress form wearing an elaborate white wedding gown. Nothing is said about the mannequin for several minutes, and we're left leaning into the scene, waiting for an explanation and fearing the inevitable fireworks that we know will result.
Directors Dominick Rebilas and Shana Bousard have squared off to deliver a series of rapid-fire scenes that bristle with energy. With the help of a gifted (but uncredited) design team, they've folded each scene into a dim pocket of light that's subtly reconfigured to suggest both a nightclub and a furnished room. The pair have assisted the actors in creating faultless performances, transforming them from the fresh-faced kids in their headshots into a couple of scary outcasts -- he a thuggish goon, she a bratty trollop. The scene where she eggs him on, hoping he'll hurt her for her transgression, is perfectly acted, and staged with palpable, powerful anger.
For all the production's theatricality and Spartan staging, the result is actually very cinematic. The entire production exudes a radiant seediness, from the metallic chrome of the screens dangling at intriguing angles from the flies to the shifting shades of "moonlight" cast from a neon sign outside Roberta's window.
I've seen productions of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea that have plodded, delivering languid punches and resorting to histrionics and real violence to make Shanley's complex points. This version, which saunters offstage in a very few days, packs a one-two wallop worth holding still for.
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