John Patrick Shanley’s 1983 play “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea” is disturbing. Directed by Jeff Ward, the play opens in a bar. Not a glossy glass-encased saloon that has become a staple in 21st-century Manhattan; this Bronx dive is hazily lit and slathered in tattered wood slates. It’s littered with rickety chairs and sticky tables. An old-school jukebox pushed against a window and a payphone tethered to the wall allude to the 1980s period. Two lonely and self-loathing strangers are seated in the tavern on a snowy evening. However, what happens between Danny (Christopher Abbott) and Roberta (Aubrey Plaza) is the furthest thing from a Hollywood meet-cute.
Sporting a frightening black eye and mauled hands, Danny is agitated. He sits alone at a small table, barely able to contain his frantic energy while losing himself in a pitcher of beer. Across the room, Roberta rattles a tray full of pretzels in an apparent effort to draw attention to herself. When Danny notices the salty snack, he asks Roberta to share, and the odd couple’s shockingly honest conversation begins when she decides to sit at his table.
Danny initially doesn’t want to be bothered, so he reacts to Roberta’s invasion of his personal space in a fit of barely contained rage. Undeterred by his fury, Roberta provokes him into a discussion, hurling random tidbits about her life toward him, including her age, marital status and her most shameful secret, that she’s had a sexual encounter with her father. Despite the shock of the revelation, Danny remains largely unfazed. Instead of shaming his new bar comrade —which would have been an obvious choice for someone harboring such machoism and anger — he lets Roberta in on a secret of his own: He may be a stone-cold killer.
With an 80-minute run time, “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea” is much less a play than an overly prolonged exercise in acting. Abbott and Plaza are sharp and chaotic, standing amid their characters’ ruinous lives as they trauma-dump and explode violently onto one another. The infusion of humor in the rapid-fire dialogue of two people revealing their sacred truths makes it an unsettling watch.
While there is no intermission, a choreographed interlude to Otis Redding’s “For Your Precious Love” ends amid sex and conversation in Roberta’s cramped bedroom, where the pair attempt to comfort each other to sleep with promises and touches. Scott Pask’s set design is eerily authentic. Yet, Ward’s choice to place Danny and Roberta on the floor and in bed during the second half of the play often makes the couple invisible to a good chunk of the audience, which becomes a distraction. When the viewer is pulled out of the world of “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea,” finding a way back in is challenging.
As the wintery night turns to morning, Roberta and Danny realize their skeletons and agreements are more easily kept in the dark. Neither can hide from the light of a new day, and they must decide how to press forward. However, with loads of intimate anguish between them, the viewer is left exhausted, not caring what the duo chooses to do but hoping for some resolution so that the furor and yelling might ultimately cease.
Despite the raw banter and the actors’ solid performances (especially Abbott), “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea” isn’t exactly riveting. Instead, it feels like a somber, overly long vignette of two deeply tortured people without the means or wherewithal to address the horrors of their circumstances and personal choices. If only for a moment, the duo cling to one another, conceiving of a plan where they might for once grasp onto some semblance of happiness. Though the play should center on the vulnerability of two emotionally troubled souls desperate for connection, it feels instead like an endless and exhausting screaming match that the audience is forced to endure without any hope for respite.