SAN DIEGO — Even through the rows of cement slabs that define the sidewalks of the Bronx, an occasional sprig of green might wend its way through the cracks to curl wistfully toward the sun.
There is a similar feel to the story of the emotionally battered young man and woman in the Bronx-based "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea," playing at the Bowery Theatre through May 19.
Because Danny and Roberta relax their hostile vigilance against the world for one night, long buried feelings of tenderness slip through their armor to emerge into something which, if they are not careful, might blossom into love.
The play, a San Diego premiere, is by John Patrick Shanley, whose screenplay for the film "Moonstruck" won him an Academy Award this year.
Fans of "Moonstruck" will notice certain similarities. Both works draw upon an unlikely mesh of scarred personalities that somehow sizzle on sight. Both show lovers who fight this attraction only to succumb under a full, magical moon that binds them with the irresistible fairy force of Puck's passion flower in "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
But "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea" is a better story than "Moonstruck." The characters in this two-person play are darker, deeper and inherently more real. One could not ask for a more talented twosome than Erin Kelly and David Whitney Johnson to plumb those depths.
While these recent San Diego State University graduates have done less than a half-dozen shows between them, this show should cause their credits to be fruitful and multiply.
As Roberta, Kelly plays a quick-witted whirl of angry seduction and fragile grace. She spits out words like razors in a tough, frightened manner that reveals that her character does not even know which will hurt and which will heal.
Johnson's job is even tougher. Like Rodin's "Le Penseur," he has to show and not tell his growth of thought and feeling. He does it flawlessly, moving with slow, convincing momentum from the man his acquaintances label "the beast" to someone who just might have a chance to make himself and someone else happy.
Shanley dedicated this 1984 play, as he was later to dedicate his screen writing Oscar, "to everyone in the Bronx who punched or kissed me, and to everyone I punched or kissed."
It's an appropriate nod to the spirit that he has created here: Danny is a puncher and Roberta is a kisser. At least it starts out that way. Both, it turns out, have both sides in them aching to come out.
Ralph Elias' direction works like sleight of hand. Laughter, tears, fear, hope are drawn forth with seeming effortlessness; you never see the hand behind the scenes pulling the strings.
All aspects of the production enhance the pulsing life on stage, from Erik Hanson's simple set--the bar tables on one side, the bed with the votive candle, bridal doll and ashtray on the other--to Jack Shepherd's gentle lighting that at one point brushes a red aureole around Kelly's head.
Then, too, there is the music, carefully selected by Lawrence Czoka. It's hard to think of anything more appropriate to the theme than a slice of Randy Newman flowing into Bruce Springsteen singing, "This old world is rough/It's just getting rougher/ . . . /Come on baby, cover me."
When we first see Danny and Roberta they are sitting, staring, drinking beer and jadedly surveying the territory. There are a lot of fish in the deep blue sea, the title of the show seems to imply. Certainly, these two went into their initial encounter expecting to find fish they could pull from the hooks and return to the waves. But when you get the right fish, the play seems to say, why throw it back?
Samuel Johnson was once said to have referred to a second marriage as "a triumph of hope over experience."
For the characters in "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea," it is also a triumph of courage over fear. That act of courage also applies to these two new actors who not only attempt but succeed in carrying the show on their own, but to the struggling Bowery Theatre itself, which opened the show to a house of about 20, including critics.
Such courage in the face of the odds yearns toward triumph like a plant toward the light. It deserves it.
"DANNY AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA"
By John Patrick Shanley. Director, Ralph Elias. Lighting, Jack Shepherd. Sound design, Lawrence Czoka. Set, Erik Hanson. Stage manager, Oza Whitten. With Erin Kelly and David Whitney Johnson. At 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, through May 29.