Danny and the Deep Blue Sea is a love story, but it isn’t just any old love story. It’s not the classic Hollywood meet-cute where two beautiful people with middle-class wounds find each other and learn to be happy. It’s sad, but not the gorgeous, oh-the-humanity kind of sad that James Joyce writes about when people with large regrets watch snow fall on all the living and the dead. The 1984 play by John Patrick Shanley is the rough and uncomfortable tale of two unfixably screwed-up people meeting in a crappy bar in the Bronx.
There is never a moment during the play when the audience will wish to be these characters. Roberta is a coarse single mother who lives with her parents and has sunk into a pit of despair and shame over a sexual encounter she had with her father. Danny is like a beaten dog turned to beast—he’s so wound up and angry he can barely look at a person without throwing punches. These aren’t loners in the cool, James Dean way. They are societal castoffs whose first encounter is so weird and fierce that they might as well be sharks fighting over chum. My guess is that you’ve never seen a bar scene like this before, either on stage or in real life.
This production by Between the Lines Theatre stars Sophia Jensen as Roberta and Tyson Gerhardt as Danny. In May, Jensen played Nina in the company’s production of Stupid Fucking Bird, and she did a great job with that character. Like Roberta, Nina is screwed up, but her self-centered quest for fame and confidence in her own attractiveness provide her some leverage. Roberta believes she has nothing to offer the world. Jensen doesn’t try to make her beautiful—there is no manic pixie dream girl buried beneath the pain (thank goodness)—but she’s able to draw out the parts of Roberta that matter, especially her startling tenacity, which you can’t help but admire, even if her choices seem doomed.
Gerhardt is an excellent match for Jensen. They occupy the stage with equal amounts of violence and desperation. Gerhardt’s Danny moves his arms into a fighting stance as if he’s a marionette being manipulated by imaginary demons. The clenched core of his character is also present in the way he speaks. Danny wants to seem detached, but he’s in constant fight-or-flight mode, and even a drunk passed out on a barstool nearby is, in Danny’s mind, out to get him.
It’s little wonder Shanley can turn a simple scenario in which two people meet at a bar and spend the night together into an experience as deep as the ocean the play’s title references. He’s written 23 plays, including the award-winning Doubt, that have been translated into 15 languages and performed in 17 countries. But his roots are not far from those of his characters. He grew up in the Bronx with a father who was a meatpacker (like Danny’s father) and he’s mentioned in interviews having a tumultuous relationship with his mother. Whatever hard edge he developed doesn’t seem to have killed his exquisite knack for observation and putting his own experience on the page. In a 2004 interview with the New York Times, he talked about his upbringing in the Bronx, saying, “It was extremely anti-intellectual and extremely racist and none of this fit me. I was in constant fistfights from the time I was 6. I did not particularly want to be. People would look at me and become enraged at the sight of me. I believe that the reason was they could see that I saw them. And they didn’t like that.”
Knowing that, it’s hard not to think about Danny and Roberta as renditions of their author. At one point, Roberta tells Danny that the ocean is only 20 blocks away, and then she delves into a monologue. I won’t quote too much of it—you should hear the whole thing aloud—but here’s a snippet:
“When we got married, me and Billy, that was my husband, we smoked a ball of opium one night. It really knocked me out. I fell asleep like immediately. And I dreamed about the ocean. It was real blue. And there was the sun, and it was real yellow. And I was out there, right in the middle of the ocean, and I heard this noise. I turned around, and whaddaya think I saw? Just about right next to me. A whale! A whale came shootin straight outta the water!”
This moment—telling a story about an opium dream she had years before—is about as good as it’s been for Roberta. For Danny, the mere idea that the ocean is closer than he thought seems to be the best thing that’s happened to him in forever. Despite their tough exteriors and terrible qualities and low probability of ever finding worldly success, they have moments in which the truth of their situation and the promise of some better future are illuminated. And that’s something we can all hope for.
Danny and the Deep Blue Sea continues at the Roxy Theater Thu., Nov. 16–Sun., Nov. 19. Visit theroxytheater.org for tickets and times. $20.