Fighting for Love
John Patrick Shanley’s Danny and the Deep Blue Sea at the Nuyorican Poets Café
A revival of John Patrick Shanley’s 1984 two-person drama Danny and the Deep Blue Sea closed last week at the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York City. The second effort of YOLO! Productions, Nairoby Otero, founder and executive producer writes that, “The mission of YOLO! is to produce published and original works that enhance the visibility of women to the stage.” Ms. Otero also stars as Roberta in this production, and while Danny and the Deep Blue Sea does not spring to my mind as a typical example of a feminist play, she makes the point in an email that “this is a play that has a woman onstage the entire time. …I loved seeing a woman so broken onstage for seventy minutes and seeing her have dignity.” Ms. Otero and YOLO! have also made an effort to have women at the core of their production process: the all-female team for this show included director Michelle Tattenbaum, assistant director Katie Falter, and Andreza Ortiz, a directing major at Marymount Manhattan College, who observed rehearsals as part of an internship.
Danny and the Deep Blue Sea tells the story of two strangers (Danny and Roberta) who, after a hesitant, defensive initial meeting in a Bronx bar, bob and weave in a three-scene long “apache dance” (a violent dance for two people, according to Shanley’s stage directions) towards forgiveness and ownership over their lives. Danny and Roberta ultimately find they can envision a future together that neither of them could see for themselves.
Founded in 1973 by a group of poets, playwrights, and musicians of color whose work was underrepresented in the mainstream arts community of New York City, the Nuyorican Poets Café is a fitting haven for Shanley’s outcast protagonists. Both characters have a secret that fills them with self-loathing, and though each may think they want to drink alone, both eventually are seduced by the redemptive power of telling their stories. This is a narrative that seems to play out constantly at the Poets Café, a hotbed of slam poetry and home to an award winning slam team. The Café has a working bar and features high ceilinged, raw space with flexible seating. This set up made me wish for slightly more imaginative and integrated staging, especially in the opening bar scene. However, Michelle Tattenbaum’s choice to center the action on a very small raised platform is a thought-provoking one—the last two scenes take place in Roberta’s bedroom, of which she remarks, “It used to be a closet. I painted it myself.”
The transition from bar to bedroom is a coordinated effort by the two actors, a step-by-step making of the bed and taking off of clothes. The changeover was interesting to watch, but though the actors were making constant eye contact, I wasn’t sure of the stakes at play: Was this a stand-off? A challenge? A seduction? An apache dance? The minimal bedroom props—blanket, lamp, and night table—were shabby in a way that fit the play. The rickety nature of the setup produced one of my favorite moments of the evening: the bedroom lamp was accidentally knocked to the floor, where it smashed and sparked. It’s always fun to watch actors handle the unexpected, and the two leads reacted with grace and humor, each making sure the stage was clear of broken glass at different moments for the remainder of the show.
The rickety nature of the setup produced one of my favorite moments of the evening: the bedroom lamp was accidentally knocked to the floor, where it smashed and sparked.
“It’s like they don’t listen to what they say to each other.” Danny says in the play, “If they was listenin, they’d have to start swingin. They’d have to.” John Patrick Shanley’s father—like Danny’s—was a meatpacker. In a 2004 interview with the New York Times, Shanley talks about growing up in the east Bronx in the 1950s and 60s:
I was in constant fistfights from the time I was six. 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.
In time, Shanley’s observational skill allowed him to escape the toxic elements of his environment. Is Danny a shadow of what Shanley might have been? Danny is trapped—bewildered and frightened by his other-ness—violence is his only outlet. In YOLO!’s production, Michael Micalizzi’s hot-tempered Danny has an ungainly, pathetic air that made him more pitiable than fearsome and brought out his character’s deep fear of the world and of himself. Even Danny’s violent blowups seem like cries for help, and when he finally lets himself relax, Micalizzi’s sweetness is heartbreaking.
Ms. Otero plays with a great clarity of intention; she doesn’t back down from Roberta’s single-minded resolve to “fix” Danny, or more accurately to play out a fantasy in an attempt to convince herself it’s possible for her to love and be loved. Roberta’s fearlessness in the face of Danny’s violent temper comes from the desperation of hitting rock bottom. “Harder,” she says, when Danny loses control and chokes her in the bar. She wants to die for the same reason Danny beats up on people; there’s something inside her not letting her sleep, not letting her function.
Unexpectedly for both Danny and Roberta, their individual soul baring has real emotional effects, and they find themselves in some kind of love. Something unclenches in Danny, enough for him to re-frame Roberta’s situation:
You did a bad thing. An it’s been bitin you in the head for a long time. It’s a long enough time. You paid for what you done. That’s why you got me last night. That’s why you brought me here. You know…you’d paid up. That’s why you told me your bad thing.
Just as Roberta has exonerated Danny earlier in the play, by kissing his battered hands, refusing to be afraid of him, and forcing him to believe she really sees him, he returns the favor. Ms. Otero and Mr. Micalizzi have an easy chemistry as a couple. Their commitment to their characters was exciting, and though I was never truly convinced that things would go south and stay there for Danny and Roberta, I was content to watch them fight toward their happily ever after.