John Patrick Shanley reflects on his busiest theatre season in 20 years

Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, Doubt, and Brooklyn Laundry, are all in New York in early 2024, marking the second time he's had three concurrent plays running.

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

No doubt about it, the current theatre season is a major one for the award-winning writer and director John Patrick Shanley. That’s true three times over.

An Off-Broadway revival of his drama Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, starring Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott as lost souls who find each other, is running through January 13. A Broadway revival of his 2004 play, Doubt: A Parable, with Tyne Daly as a nun who casts suspicion on a priest (Liev Schreiber), begins performances February 2. Finally, Shanley's newest Off-Broadway play about three sisters, Brooklyn Laundry, starts on February 6, with Shanley also directing.

The wealth of works by Shanley, who won a Tony and a Pulitzer for Doubt and an Oscar for Moonstruck, inspired a New York Theatre Guide editor to dub this season a “Shanleyissance.” That works: The Brooklyn-based playwright pulled off a similar triad in 2004. That year marked the Off-Broadway premieres of Doubt and Sailor’s Song and a 20th-anniversary revival of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea.

Shanley recalled reaching out back then to the head of Manhattan Theatre Club, which was producing Doubt, about his multiple productions. “I asked, ‘Is this going to be a problem for you?’" Shanley said. "She said, ‘Two could be a problem, but three is interesting.’”

It still is. We talked to Shanley about his work appearing in threes, his star-studded casts, and his most unforgettable night in the theatre.

What do these three plays mean to you?

Danny was my breakthrough play. Around 1983 I got a job with Dramatists Play Service; I was there for about a year when I got the call that they were doing Danny in New York. It had already been done by the Actors Theatre of Louisville. I went to the head of my company and said, "I’m leaving." He said, "What are you going to do?" I said, "I'm going to be a playwright full-time."

From that production of Danny I made $5,000. I was able to live on that, and I got a National Endowment for the Arts grant when that money was running out. I've never had to work for anybody again.

What about Doubt, a play filled with gray areas and moral ambiguity?

I wish there was no ambiguity. But I'm afraid that that’s not the experience of being alive. Since we first did Doubt, now that feeling of impermanence has become the order of the day. Maybe in some nascent way I was experiencing that when I wrote Doubt originally, but now everybody’s experiencing that. It’s become the chief tone of the age. This is an age of profound uncertainty and anxiety, as well as fatalism. There’s a feeling that nothing can be done.

How does Brooklyn Laundry fit in and speak with the earlier works?

I like drop-off laundry, it’s one of the greatest things. But it struck me one day when I put my bag of laundry on the scale that I was asking them to judge my life. That was the impetus for the play. It’s about responsibility and committing to life, which, in a sense, is what Danny is about. It’s about taking steps to do the adult and right thing.

I’ve [also] always been very moved by the idea of service, and Doubt was very much about this. The nuns in the school I went to devoted their lives to serving other people. The nun I had in first grade is in assisted living right now. Her name at that time was Sister James. I didn't change it for Doubt because I thought she was dead — and then she showed up at my play. I almost had a heart attack.

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Have you revised either of the two earlier plays in advance of these revivals?

No, neither of them. Danny is a product of a time and place. I had grown up in street corner society in the Bronx with all of its very particular language and violence and uncertainty and longing. And I’m very pleased with how I captured that at the time that I wrote because I wasn't too far away from it.

When I was working at Dramatists Play Service, the president of the company said to me, "You know, Tennessee Williams calls me and sends over revisions for his plays and they’re not as good."

Why do you think stars are drawn to your plays? The casts of Danny and Doubt are proof that they are.

My natural impulse is to go there, wherever there is. I want to go there. I don’t want to go halfway there. I want to go all the way there. And a lot of the most exciting actors around that I’m lucky enough to work with — that's what they want. They're like, "I have a lot in me that I want to express. Am I going to get to express it with this role?"

What’s your favorite moment you've ever had in a theatre?

I was sitting in the audience the first night we did Danny and the Deep Blue Sea at Actors Theatre of Louisville with John Turturro and June Stein. It was like an explosion on stage, and at the end, the audience, which was comprised of theatre people, stood up as one and started cheering. That was probably the most electrifying thing that’s happened to me.

Discover more spring preview content on New York Theatre Guide and learn about all the Broadway shows this season.

Top image credit: John Patrick Shanley. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
In-article image credit: Photo credit: Christopher Abbott and Aubrey Plaza in Shanley's Danny and the Deep Blue Sea in 2023. (Photo by Emilio Madrid)

Originally published on

Feb 2 - Apr 21, 2024
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Oct 30, 2023 - Jan 13, 2024
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