John Patrick Shanley's poignant Danny and the Deep Blue Sea is a three-scene argument for love--the kind of love between a man and a woman that penetrates individual isolation via mutual kindness. And it's delivered in an unusual package as persuasive as it is hard-edged--partly because the play is well-written, and partly because director Steven Tangedal and his two-person cast at the Theatre on Broadway reach into every crevice of character to make this anti-romantic love story utterly urgent.

Roberta sits in an almost empty bar sipping beer and eating pretzels, when Danny blunders in with a pitcher of beer. He sits at a different table, and the two growl at each other like wrathful cats. Still, they can't leave each other alone and gradually begin an exchange in which they tell each other their grimmest secrets. Afterward, fraught with guilt, remorse and terror, the two lash out at each other before making peace in an attempt to hold on to what little comfort is left for them.

Danny is brutal; he finds relief for his self-hatred only by pounding others with his fists. His terror lies primarily in what he fears he may do to others. Roberta's anguish, meanwhile, centers on what she has already done--a sin so grave she feels herself beyond redemption, cursed to unhappiness forever. What can you say? She's Catholic.

So she pretends. And she gets Danny to pretend for one night that love is possible. She takes him home to her tiny bedroom, makes love to him and then coaxes him into trusting her and speaking kindly to her. Hard as it is for him to speak, he warms to the task and begins to enjoy it. As more secrets rise to the surface, bubbling out of them both in surprisingly intense terms, they begin to fantasize a wedding day together. He proposes. She accepts.

But the morning's light casts a shadow on their plans. Feeling their way along, they must navigate the rocky shoals of enormous metaphysical and ethical issues--from forgiveness of sins to the meaning of life. The question is, do they possess the wherewithal to reach each other through all the guilt and fear?

Nicholas Sugar, who gave such a dynamic performance as Bernard in Boys in the Band last season, gives another remarkable performance as Danny: He creates an aching, cruddy, alienated "beast" with a soul that can still be reached. Sugar has a hard course to pursue in this play, and he makes every right move; we can see Danny's nerve endings twitch in anguish at every touch of Roberta's hand, and though Danny seems at first as dumb as a beast, he becomes both priest and husband to his even more damaged lover.

The night I saw this production, A. Lee Massaro was out ill, and Kristine Ryker stood in as Roberta. Ryker's exploration of guilt and its effect on a fragile psyche was so detailed and authentic, she gave the whole production its psychological strength. The audience bought the ending of the play because Roberta's hot-and-cold-running temper was so cleverly refined. In the end, we could taste the ashes of remorse in her mouth.

It's hard to build a convincing artistic argument for love in a society that often confuses it with pornography or Hollywood romance. Fluffy romantic comedies abound in the movies, in literature and on stage, and when love isn't being trivialized, its significance is often simply denied. What's most gripping about this play, finally, is Shanley's ingenious investigation of private hells and how people can choose to either torment each other or deliver each other from the depths. It's not simple optimism and certainly not romanticism that touches a nerve here--it's the conviction that even in the basest conditions, the sanity of kindness can reclaim lives.


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