Aubrey Plaza Nails Her Stage Debut in ‘Danny and the Deep Blue Sea’

What’s most striking about the staging is the seemingly effortless rapport between Plaza and Christopher Abbott, even as they’re playing characters to whom little — including, at times, communication — has come easily.

Emilio Madrid
Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott in 'Danny and the Deep Blue Sea.' Emilio Madrid

A rising screen star, Jodie Comer, who according to her bio had never before acted on stage, won tremendous acclaim and a prestigious Olivier Award last year appearing in the one-woman play, “Prima Facie,” at London. The production transferred to Broadway, where her extraordinary performance earned more honors, including a Tony Award, last season.

Another popular actress now apparently making her own stage debut, Aubrey Plaza, in a revival of the John Patrick Shanley play “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea,” won’t be eligible for a Tony, as the production is off-Broadway. Moreover, Ms. Plaza — whose notable credits include “The White Lotus” and “Parks and Recreation,” as well as films like “Emily the Criminal” and “Ingrid Goes West” — isn’t tasked with carrying “Danny” alone: She co-stars with Christopher Abbott, who has juggled a movie career with theater, appearing in plays by Sam Shepard, John Guare, and Annie Baker.

Yet Ms. Plaza’s work in this maiden voyage is deeply impressive — so impressive that were I to have seen this “Danny” knowing nothing about its stars and been asked which one had no prior theater experience, I’d have been stumped. That’s in no way a negative reflection on Mr. Abbott; what’s most striking about the staging, in fact, is the seemingly effortless rapport between the performers, even as they’re playing characters to whom little has come easily.

First produced in 1983 — before Mr. Shanley had become an Oscar-winning screenwriter or introduced “Doubt,” the masterwork that won him a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize — “Danny” follows two lost souls, the title character and a single mother named Roberta, who pop up in the same deserted Bronx bar one night. Their meet-cute consists largely of shouting at first, each warning the other in no uncertain terms not to get too close.

“I think I killed a guy last night,” Danny, who’s sporting bruised hands and a cut on his face, says. We learn that colleagues at his blue-collar job call him “the Beast,” though this monster, at 29, still lives with his mom. Roberta, two years older, also shares a roof with her parents, even though she is haunted by an incident involving her father; when she shares it with Danny, she’s convinced he will shrivel away in disgust.

Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott in ‘Danny and the Deep Blue Sea.’ Emilio Madrid

The two nonetheless leave the bar together, though their communication remains fraught, and strained for reasons beyond their troubled pasts. One of the challenges confronting Mr. Abbott and Ms. Plaza, as well as director Jeff Ward — known himself as a stage and screen actor, primarily — is that both characters clearly struggle to express themselves verbally.

Yet Mr. Shanley found both comedy and pathos in this seeming inarticulateness, and Mr. Ward and his actors mine both aspects beautifully. When Roberta suggests, after a bout of fevered lovemaking, that they “be romantic to each other,” Danny is reluctant at first, but then indulges her, growing increasingly, endearingly enthusiastic.

“You got a nice nose,” he tells her. “Yeah. It’s like. … It looks at ya. That’s right! It looks right at ya, your nose, and it says hello! That’s right! And you got a nice chin, too. When you, when you smile, it goes up. Yeah. Like a balloon. No. Better. Like a bird. Like some kinda bird.”

There are also, in this production, moving moments that involve no dialogue at all. Co-movement directors Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Shraiber contribute a lovely, intense dance sequence that unfolds to Otis Redding’s recording of “For Your Precious Love”; alternately pressing into and against each other, Ms. Plaza and Mr. Abbott silently channel the aching intensity that has driven both their performances, and the effect is stirring.

This demonstration of the power of physical connection may resonate even more deeply today — when instead of meeting at a bar Danny and Roberta might have hooked up online while each was drinking at home alone — than it did 40 years ago. Certainly, it adds to the raw beauty and poignancy of Mr. Shanley’s short and enduringly bittersweet play.

The New York Sun

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