There's a reason that John Patrick Shanley's two-character, 75-minute “apache dance” from 1984, set in the Bronx, is one of the most-produced two-actor showcases (though surely topped by Alan Bowne's Beirut). The latest local rendition of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea has been extended into late January in a presentation by Crown City Theatre Company in North Hollywood, directed by John McNaughton.
Gritty, profane and shlocky, the play allows a pair of actors to run through a gamut of emotions, portraying the random meeting of a down-and-out man and woman in a run-down bar, and how that meeting evolves and devolves into mutual contempt and loathing as a direct consequence of self-contempt and self-loathing, before moving on to attraction and fantasies of domestic bliss. These fantasies start to unravel when the possibly homicidal trucker, Danny, who admits he imagines himself as a bride, reverses roles with divorced single mom Roberta. In the morning after they land in her bed, at her invitation, she's the one pushing away from the tenderness they've just felt, for much the same reason he resisted her in the bar where they met: the fear of something too good to be true.
Though the play is now more than 25 years old, it endures not because it's particularly enlightening but because, in the playing out of its psychological platitudes, it taps primal, timeless essences of human attraction and revulsion in the traditions of playwrights Sam Shepard and Tennessee Williams.
What makes the play seem smaller than it otherwise might has to do with the singular origins of each character's misery — abusive fathers. Not that intrafamilial conflict isn't the foundation of legions of great American plays, but in works that truly register the profundities of life, the kind of profound misery that leads to thoughts of suicide — which both Roberta and Danny have — comes more from an accrual of events than from a single, if life-changing, atrocity. As Anton Chekhov noted, “Any idiot can make it through a crisis; it's the day-to-day living that kills you.”
When, for example, the cause of Roberta's self-loathing is so singularly focused on an act of sexual molestation, the result is potent melodrama — not necessarily unbelievable, but an artifice and a literary reduction of something truer.
Matthew J. Williamson's hunky Danny plays the bar scene on the boil: He's already there with a bloodied hand and a scar on his face after having throttled somebody who messed with him. His hair and teeth are perfect, however, and his five o'clock shadow looks as manicured as that of a model on a GQ cover. And there's Juliet Landau's balletic Roberta, navel exposed after what looks like a two-hour workout at the gym, taunting him at play's start by conspicuously crunching pretzels that she refuses to share with him. The visual tableaux is that of two L.A. actors in a Bronx bar (set by Keiko Moreno) playing at playing Danny and Roberta.
There are moments of wonderful playfulness between the pair. When his veneer finally softens, his attempts at exhibiting affection are sentimentally awkward — a bit like Robert De Niro in Meet the Parents.
Both actors play in broad strokes, going with the grain of the play and exposing its flaws. Landau's teary confessions are as pro forma as the way Williamson sucks wind through his cheeks in order to contain swells of rage.
The production has done very well for a number of reasons — among them the entrenched rapport between Landau and Williamson. But when Landau opened the play crunching down on those pretzels, an act of petulance and defiance against somebody she hadn't met, it looked like a gratuitous setup, and from then on, the endeavor struck me as an acting exercise.
DANNY AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA | By John Patrick Shanley | Presented by Crown City Theatre, 11031 Camarillo St., N. Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. | Through Jan. 29 | (818) 745-8527 | crowncitytheatre.com