A dark and dirty riposte to meet-cute Hollywood romances about lovable losers finding each other, John Patrick Shanley’s pithy 1984 breakthrough play, “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea,” bleeds like the fresh fight scars of its angry protagonist. In Second Stage’s spare and touching revival, Rosemarie DeWitt and Adam Rothenberg steadily expose the cordoned-off hearts of their desperate characters with a bristling vitality that invigorates the fragile sentimentality of this slender two-hander.
In the same school as other 1980s downbeat romances like “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” the play shows its age but retains a bruised emotional sincerity that has softened in much of Shanley’s subsequent work. It traces a single-night encounter between a battered yet still combative Bronx couple, both scared to reveal their need for love.
The characters seem like the raw template for the lovers somewhat dethorned by the writer in his screenplay for “Moonstruck”; their ungainly bid for a lasting emotional connection evolves in marked contrast to the more mannered, self-consciously poetic outreach of the main character in Shanley’s “Sailor’s Song,” a new play that opened Off Broadway on Sunday.
Danny and Roberta meet in an underpatronized Bronx bar. Nervous and fidgety, she mashes pretzels while he sullenly downs a pitcher of beer, stewing in his aggression. Despite Danny making it clear he craves peaceful solitude, Roberta invades his space, not intimidated by warnings of his hair-trigger temper.
Both clearly are starved for communication. Danny confesses he may have killed a man in a fight the previous night; Roberta reveals a sexual encounter with her father.
They go to Roberta’s tiny apartment and sleep together, continuing through the night and into the morning with their rhythmic process of unburdening and defensive recoil, reaching out then pulling back.
With no real action to speak of, the play traces the to-and-fro swing of the pendulum between the characters as hope and the possibility of love materialize before them, first as drunken make-believe and later as something frightening but real. Subtitled “An Apache Dance,” it unfolds like a pained pas de deux, its deliberate rhythms precisely choreographed by director Leigh Silverman.
The intimate production provides no distractions around the characters. Isolated in the middle of an empty black stage, Santo Loquasto’s simple, striking set places two barroom tables beneath a slanted skylight, which lowers to the floor to become Roberta’s bedroom. Jeff Croiter’s lighting offsets the volatile bar encounter in mellow purple tones, shifting into a more naturalistic mood in the bedroom as the couple reveal more of themselves.
DeWitt initially seems a little fresh-faced and clean to embody a trashy, 31-year-old divorced mother of a screwed-up teenager, twitching with guilt and self-hatred. But she sinks into the character with humor and warmth and without affectation, conveying Roberta’s openness and her hard, suspicious side.
In a role originated by John Turturro 20 years ago, Rothenberg is equally persuasive in Danny’s gradual lowering of his guard and in the brooding character’s tough posturing, his edgy physicality and moments of pierced exposure. After playing Stanley earlier this year opposite Patricia Clarkson in the Kennedy Center’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” this accomplished actor seems ripe for wider discovery.