'Danny and the Deep Blue Sea' review — Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott find love in a hopeless place

Read our four-star review of John Patrick Shanley's Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, starring Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott, off Broadway through January 7.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

The Lucille Lortel Theatre stage is thick with haze, tinted red and blue and green and sliced open by two sharp spotlights: one on a near-empty beer pitcher, one on a bowl of pretzels in a Bronx dive bar. The scene looks like something out of a booze-addled dream. But from it, something visceral emerges, a blistering cocktail of hurt and fear and, eventually, hope.

That transpires between a more unlikely pairing than beer and pretzels: Danny (Christopher Abbott) and Roberta (Aubrey Plaza), the sole characters of John Patrick Shanley's Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. These two short-fused, sharp-tongued people — Danny will pick a fight with anyone, and Roberta is caught in a cycle of familial trauma — stumble into that bar not looking for anything, much less a meaningful respite from their guarded, lonely lives. But they're going to find it anyway, whether they like it or not.

Danny and the Deep Blue Sea was only Shanley's second Off-Broadway play, quickly proving him the master of creating characters who mistake self-destruction for self-preservation. It's easy to speculate how Danny may have given way to Shanley's Oscar-winning screenplay for Moonstruck: Only four years after Danny's 1983 premiere, when Off-Broadway audiences first saw Danny describe himself to Roberta as a loveless "beast," did film audiences see Loretta Castorini call Ronny Cammareri a "wolf." Both couples' explosive fights ultimately lead them to the bedroom, beneath a captivatingly large moon (or, in Danny's case, a light that looks like it) — a soft, watchful beacon under which lovers transform.

But that transformation is anything but soft. Danny and Roberta dismantle each other's walls, yes, but with the care of a wrecking ball in a wind gust. Danny wins Roberta's trust by choking her, to which she responds by opening up about an incestuous incident from her adolescence for which she blames herself. Not your usual foreplay. Even when the pair fall into sex and sweet-talk, Shanley smartly avoids improbable romanticism by questioning the intention behind it in the play's home stretch.

Danny and Roberta's dance between pain and pleasure also unfolds, in one scene, as a literal dance (co-conceived by Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber) that left me wanting more movement throughout, considering how strongly the characters are defined by their fraught relationships with physical touch.

Contrary to what the title suggests, we learn more about Roberta than Danny; Shanley never reveals where his hardened belligerence originated. Nonetheless, Abbott excellently teases out Danny's tender side, finding the various shades of the character. The Emmy-nominated Plaza brings her proven acting talents to Roberta, but her Bronx accent sometimes gets in her way. (Plaza is making her stage debut alongside Jeff Ward as director.)

What writer, director, and actors all get right in the end, though, is uncertainty. They may change each other in the course of one night, but it seems just as likely that Roberta and Danny will keep clinging to each other as they will end right back up at that dive bar, picking new fights with new people over beer and pretzels, as though their one night of hope really was just a hazy dream.

Danny and the Deep Blue Sea is at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through January 7. Get Danny and the Deep Blue Sea tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Christopher Abbott and Aubrey Plaza in Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. (Photo by Emilio Madrid)

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