Soul Porn

Danny and the Deep Blue Sea rubs your face in life's icky contradictions, and you love it.

Danny and the Deep Blue Sea was a last-minute addition to the Alliance Theatre Lab's season. It was an economics thing, apparently. Danny's got two actors and almost no set, so it's easy to produce. Actually it's probably easy in all respects: easy to direct, easy to star in. John Patrick Shanley didn't flinch while writing Danny more than 25 years ago. It feels like the work of a young playwright greedily plundering the darkest depths of human potential, in love with his own ability to say things other playwrights didn't say and illuminate situations uglier than most playwrights would dare examine. The protagonists, Danny and Roberta, are candy for actors and directors eager to show how hard they can punch. Yet Danny and the Deep Blue Sea is, among other things, about a woman whose life may have been ruined when she gave her father a blowjob. So no matter how easy it is to stage, a play like this one shouldn't be easy to watch. Yet it always is, and that might be a problem.

A weird problem. To point it out is to grouse about having too much fun. Aside from sounding curmudgeonly, the gripe begs the question: If you aren't going to the theater at least partially to have a good time, why go at all? To explore human nature? Plenty of folks will say so, but Danny might give the lie to that noble idea. Blowjobs for daddy, lives in tatters, a dude who can't stop fistfighting and might have killed somebody — Danny and the Deep Blue Sea is about all of this, but it's more funny than sad, and that's nuts.

Travis Reiff and Jennifer Toohey: A blind date gone terribly wrong.
Travis Reiff and Jennifer Toohey: A blind date gone terribly wrong.

Details

Directed by Adalberto J. Acevedo. With Travis Reiff and Jennifer Toohey. Through December 16. Alliance Theatre Lab at the Main Street Playhouse, 6766 Main St, Miami Lakes; 305-567-2721, www.thealliancetheatrelab.com.

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The play begins as a fly-on-the-wall view of two very broken people sitting at a bar. Roberta forces Danny to chat. He doesn't want to — he's more into bloodying than bonding — but it happens. Danny goes home with Roberta; they have sex. The next morning, they have to deal with each other, to bring the previous night into sync with their ordinary lives.

Dramatic, right? But what gives Danny its spark and keeps eyes glued to the stage is how entertainingly fucked up its protagonists are. Sure, we all have our own little traumas; we all know somebody who's worse off than we are, but even that person is a paragon of mental health next to Danny and Roberta. They are somehow a source of delight and mirth.

Danny enters the first scene a mess: His jeans are torn, his hands bandaged. He's not even sure he wants to talk about it with Roberta — he's half-convinced he'd rather break her nose — but he goes with it, maybe just for a change of pace. The other night, he relates, when brawling with a bunch of guys at a party, he pounded a man nonstop for 10 minutes, even after the man had stopped fighting back. Danny continued to stomp on his chest, and heard something break. Now he thinks the guy might be dead. This is heavy, even for Danny, who is at least partially aware he's got problems.

Roberta seems to relish the opportunity to chat with somebody damaged enough not to judge her for her daddy issue. Danny is the first person she's ever told. The greed with which she goes after the reticent stranger is scary. When he finally assaults her, after much provocation, she responds to his chokehold by croaking, "Harder!"

There's real pleasure in all of this, but it's a pornographic pleasure. We shouldn't watch. We should avert our eyes.

Happily there is also dramatic pleasure — technical and aesthetic. It's rare to see a perfectly cast actor at work; Travis Reiff couldn't be better. He's not a big guy, but here he's almost hulking. He's twitchy but muscular, like an angry pig rooting around for something, and also human. No matter what his body and face are up to, his eyes always communicate a trapped native intelligence horrified by what it's been forced to witness. As Roberta, Jennifer Toohey is almost as good, animated by need and the sudden exhilaration of meeting somebody who might understand her, and whom she can understand.

Watching such damaged people enacted so convincingly by good actors might be pornographic, but there's something kind of wonderful about it too: It allows the dregs to seem human. If you were in the bar with Danny and Roberta, you wouldn't talk to them — you'd move to a distant table or leave the place. At the theater, you stick around and watch, and mortification gives way to compassion (though, thanks to Shanley's instinctive dislike of the maudlin, never to pity). The wretches in Danny and the Deep Blue Sea don't afford us any of the aforementioned guilty, smug self-satisfaction ordinarily derived from encounters with very damaged people. The play lets us see too much of Danny and Roberta for that.

The exposure makes us hope they'll find some way to help each other, and makes us believe they can. That's nice — for us, them, and everybody. If we are titillated by blood and guts, that doesn't mean we can't be better people.

 
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