The gin joint could be anywhere, but it happens to be a dive in the Bronx; the lovers could be anyone, but they're neighborhood types who've seen better days.
It's an old story -- strangers in the night. But a writer like John Patrick Shanley can remind us that falling in love mixes terror and thrills in ways that knock you flat. Now Elephant Stage Works, in association with Volition Entertainment, has revived Shanley's irresistible 1984 two-hander, "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea."
Danny (Daniel De Weldon) is drunk and reeling from his latest fight; Roberta (Deborah Dir) is dodging single motherhood and a controlling family. The bar's closing soon, and so are their options. She checks him out, Danny asks for a pretzel, and they're off to the races. In the course of a single night, they court Catholic: confess their sins, give each other absolution and dare to imagine happiness.
Director Michael Arabian choreographs Roberta and Danny's thrash toward intimacy with a sure hand. The play is subtitled "An Apache Dance," a reference to a violent dance popular with Parisian street toughs, and the actors move through the play's emotional minefield with grace and guts, grabbing Shanley's street talk by the fistful and shoving it at each other full-force. (Danny: "Keep your hands to yourself or you could lose 'em!")
The angular Dir, a chain-smoking Modigliani, turns her self-hate inside out to disarm Danny. His aggression is familiar, a pose she knows well. "What's the matter, badass?" she challenges. "Somebody get your matches wet?"
De Weldon, effectively contained, finds an arresting stillness under Danny's bluster; listening to Dir without looking at her, he lets us hear what she's really asking for under all her protests. Their mutual surrender has real stakes -- we witness his violence and hear of hers -- and the performers gorgeously conjure the sudden weightless astonishment of finding themselves attached to each other.
Sure, "Sea" has too many endings, and Roberta's expurgation of a traumatic secret feels a little schematic. The play's tropes are plenty familiar: pale moons, brides in white, singing birds. Still, Shanley finds terrific humor in the fact that love may happen over and over, but when it's your turn, all bets are off. And there are few contemporary stage romances willing to shed so much blood to reveal such heart.
`Danny and the Deep Blue Sea'
Where: Elephant Performance Lab, 1076 N. Lillian Way, Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Ends: July 20
Contact: (323) 960-7753 or www.plays411.com/danny
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes