After seeing his powerful "Savage in Limbo," which recently closed at the Cast, it's fair to say that John Patrick Shanley's "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea," which just opened next door at the Cast-at-the-Circle, is one of those early pieces writers need to write and often regret.
It is a rite-of-passage play; a wishful thinking play; the kind of implausible love story made almost plausible by strong performances, but also a transparent two-finger exercise that leaves us a heap of questions at the final blackout.
True, Ibsen started the unanswered question business when he had Nora slam the door. (Where did that Victorian woman go?) What is the future for Shanley's Danny and Roberta, out there, out of their depth in the blue sea?
They are dangerous drifters saddled with ravaging memories--he, a probable murderer with a hair-trigger streak of violence; she, a tainted spirit, paralyzed by her participation in a defensive act of incest. Her initiating role in that act relentlessly torments her.
Danny (Michael Arabian) and Roberta (Susan Berman) meet in a bar where each sits alone, trying to shut out the world. Somehow, they talk. Somehow, they both announce how much they each hate/hated their father, a uniting call to arms--each other's arms. Somehow they confide other deeply personal, painful things. They consider the possibility of going home together and decide they will--to her place since she lives in a closet and he seems to live nowhere. They go to bed. They determine they may be in love.
This is all done, of course, with a lot of the right kind of rough language peppering the mating dance. No wonder Shanley subtitles his play "An Apache Dance," as in the French turn-of-the-century use of Apache, meaning a thug who likes to dominate women.
They are severely damaged goods, these two, and while it's easy to see Shanley's fascination with them, it's less easy to see what made him expect that falling in love would miraculously heal them. Or that we would believe it. Fairy tales don't happen to psychotics.
Given the evidence, only Danny is psychotic. If he hasn't yet killed (he's not sure), he will--probably Roberta, who's your classic victim: born to be brutalized. Unwritten is the fact that her attraction to Danny is more than likely based on his capacity for fury. But no sense in dabbling in cheap psychology: Anything's possible even if it's unlikely. The problem here is that the case Shanley presents is merely unpersuasive.
What is persuasive is Arabian's performance. He's every bit the bristling, frightened, confused, bottled-up psychopath, capable of explosive violence. It's a masterful bit of acting deficient in only one respect: He's never truly terrorizing. It's a deficiency probably traceable to Shanley's script.
Berman is less effective as Roberta, largely because Shanley gives the character less room to grow and Berman lacks ingrained toughness. There's a sweetness that insists on piercing through.
Robert Berlinger's direction might have been more helpful here. It is otherwise as ultra-basic as Fred M. Duer's set, as unobtrusive as Kathy A. Perkins lighting and as minimal as Nathan Wang's music.
This is just an unbelievable story, a sequel to which might be a lot more interesting.
Performances at 800 N. El Centro Ave. run Thursdays through Saturday at 8 p.m.;, Sundays at 7 p.m. through Dec. 20. Tickets: $12; (213) 462-0265.