A candy with a hard, bitter outer shell can still have a soft, gooey center. A sample of just such a confection is available now at Second Stage, where a revival of John Patrick Shanley's 1984 guilty pleasure of a play Danny and the Deep Blue Sea just opened.
You don't need to have a theatrical sweet tooth to understand or enjoy the play, but it does help - this is one of the most visible, concrete examples of Shanley's dedication to exploring the infinite contrasts of human relationships. In the world of this play, everyone is, and is not, exactly what he or she seems - the bully can be a confessor, the hardened woman can be a scared little girl, and they both can be in great need of what they vehemently oppose.
Not that either is easily identifiable as anything but world-weary singles when they first collide in a seedy New York bar. Both Danny (Adam Rothenberg) and Roberta (Rosemarie DeWitt) are desperate to escape their troubled lives, and don't care where that path leads them: She's likely headed to despondency, he to jail. But when they discover they can trust each other, if only a little, it's enough to convince them to come together in what they think will be a one-night stand. It soon proves to be something far greater: It's the first time either has really connected with another person.
The play doesn't progress much farther in terms of story, but it doesn't have to; the whirlwind affair that Shanley depicts is one that - despite initial outward appearances - has love rather than sex at its center. This gives the play a certain fairy-tale quality, almost Hollywoodized in the way two people meet and discover they're perfect for each other. Yet the characters are compellingly and believably drawn: Danny is never whole unless pummeling someone with fists or words, while Roberta's forever on the verge of letting a shameful incident from her past sabotage her future. But when they come together, they become something greater.
If the optimism of it all might want to set your eyes rolling, it's amazing how well Shanley integrates it into the work, and his good feelings never feel misapplied. The characters don't discover their potential for happiness easily; they resist it until almost the very last moment, but it's transformative when it does arrive. Can this really happen over the course of a single night? Maybe, maybe not, but Shanley finds the sweetness while avoiding the saccharine, and makes a convincing, moving case for it.
For the most part, so do Rothenberg and DeWitt, who make smooth transitions from tough-as-nails types to people actually capable of giving and receiving love. Their early hardness is so uncompromising that their later turnabouts have the unexpected, redemptive effect Shanley intended; their chemistry together as a couple develops at exactly the right rate.
Aiding in this is Leigh Zimmerman, who has tightly directed the piece and helped it find that ideal pacing. Santo Loquasto's set - a fairly elaborate setup - gives the play too slick a sheen, and causes the production to lose some of its most vital momentum in an early transition from the bar to the bedroom. Jennifer von Mayrhauser's costumes are appropriately trashy, and Jeff Croiter's lighting design and John Gromada's sound nicely complete the atmosphere.
It's interesting to revisit Danny and the Deep Blue Sea this month, which also sees the openings of two new Shanley plays - Sailor's Song (which opened at the Public this past weekend) and Doubt (bowing at the Manhattan Theatre Club on the 22nd). An early example of the style that helped establish Shanley as a major dramatic voice, this is a play that still resonates with considerable theatricality and a winning, even surprisingly humorous, harshness.
How does the play itself hold up? The tone is markedly early-1980s, dark and cautious, yet strangely hopeful and even warmly embracing of basic human needs that will always be with us. Plus, it still plays beautifully as an off-kilter love story and a reminder of all life can and does offer, even in the darkest moments. Today, as in 1984, what could be more relevant?
Second Stage Theatre