Red Lion Theatre, Islington, 9 June 2016
A second outing for these two actors performing one of John Patrick Shanley’s earliest plays is both slick and moving. But the production fails to convince the audience that this is happening in the Bronx, and that’s a major fault.
It’s what we all want, right? To find someone to love, someone to support you and hold you during the moments when life delivers a series of kicks to one’s most sensitive regions. Yet it’s not easy. How much more difficult must it be when one is born into a world of violence and truncated sensibilities wherein love is absent?
This is the problem at the heart of John Patrick Shanley’s Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, an 80 minute two-hander which has opened at the Red Lion Theatre in Islington. It is answered unexpectedly and touchingly, if perhaps implausibly.
Late one night 29-year old Danny (Gareth O’Connor) walks into an almost deserted bar in the Bronx and meets 31-year old Roberta (Megan Lloyd-Jones). Her initial halting efforts at conversation are met with a snarling rebuff. His T-shirt is torn, and he is bloodied. He eventually reveals this is as a result of a vicious brawl he instigated earlier in the night because another guy looked at him funny.
The subsequent attack is described in chilling detail. It was so thorough and remorseless that Danny doesn’t know if the other guy is alive or dead. But Roberta isn’t the least bit fazed by this. She’s heard worse and doubtless seen worse. Moreover, she harbours a dark shameful secret which makes her believe her own life is worthless and that, helped along by a large dollop of blue collar Catholic guilt, she deserves nothing but pain.
After initial hostility – his default response to any and all social interaction – Danny finds himself warming to Roberta. Or rather she’s the first person he’s met for a long time he doesn’t want to beat into a pulp. They swap stories of their fractured lives: his father is dead, he lives with his mom, he hated his father; she has a 13-year old kid from a marriage long since ended; she lives with her parents who take care of the kid; she hates her father too.
Unable to generate much in the way of conversational repartee Roberta taunts Danny, waiting for the inevitable violent response. After he’s almost killed her, which Roberta would have welcomed, she invites him back to her tiny room for a night of lovemaking. That’s how they do things in the Bronx.
From this somewhat unpromising courtship and a bout of sex with more than a flavour of sado-masochism, a new and, to this couple, unusual spirit of gentleness enters this bedroom. They begin complimenting each other, Roberta with rather more fluency than Danny because that’s what women and men, particularly from this world, are like.
But he perseveres, warms her heart, and, in the middle of it all asks her to marry him. Why shouldn’t they, he asks, have the same, simple things that other people seem to take so easily and so naturally? Why shouldn’t two broken people have someone to love as well?
That isn’t it by a long chalk, of course. There’s still a bit more raging to be done first, and one feels that if Danny and Roberta do stay together, their lives would be punctuated by regular and long bouts of raging. But this play is only 80 minutes, just a teaser to what might lie ahead for this pair of life’s waifs.
If it’s implausible, we forgive the playwright his sentiment. It’s hard not to be touched, and want to believe it’s true and possible despite the obstacles. We want this Roberta and Danny to prove to us that our almost instinct is almost true, and what will survive of us is love.
This is not the first outing for this play and these actors. They performed it to acclaim just over a year ago at Theatre N16, which was also directed by Courtney Larkin. So they all know each other well and it shows. It’s done with facility and polish. Both actors, particularly Lloyd-Jones, have complete command of the dialogue and the cadences and tempo of the script. It doesn’t hesitate for a moment but keeps swooping along.
The play is only three scenes long and constitutes an apache dance, which, according to Shanley’s stage directions, is ‘a violent dance for two people.’ The name has nothing to do with native Americans, but is derived from the label given to Parisian street gangs at the end of the 19th century. Dancers in search of inspiration visited apache bars and came up with this new dance form, where the woman and the man, often a prostitute and a pimp, would be pulled together and then throw each other apart, often with an assortment of slaps, before a final union.
So, the physical chemistry and understanding between the two actors is key, and this too is aided by their familiarity with the material. The sexual encounter is suggested by a choreographed dance sequence, which leaves both actors in underwear and hot and sweaty on Roberta’s unmade bed.
Later, she has a nightmare which is also portrayed in the form of a dance, which, though effective is somewhat at odds with her subsequent comment ‘I slept like a baby for the first time in like a hundred years.’
So much, so good. But there is quite a bit wrong this production as well. Gareth O’Connor gives into bellowing too much. We know that he’s an angry young man but there are other ways of suggesting this than shouting a lot, particularly in the tiny space that is the Red Lion. The director should have rationed his shouty moments.
But more significant is its relative failure to conjure time and place. New York, and particularly the Bronx, is absolutely key to Shanley’s work, from Danny and the Deep Blue Sea right up to Prodigal Son which ran in New York last year. This is his world, and it’s not incidental but a major character in the play. We hear of Zerega, and Westchester Square, and these, to Shanley, are real, living places, the theatre of his childhood.
So, it doesn’t help when the accents are only hit and miss. In the case of Megan Lloyd-Jones, it’s more hit than miss, but in the case of O’Connor, quite a lot more miss than hit. Whatever accent he’s doing, it’s only very occasionally the Bronx.
This does matter . It’s not only the sound of the speech, but the rhythms of it and the physical mannerisms that often accompany it. It’s part of the poetry of the character. It’s their truth. Getting it right is assuredly difficult, but it takes the audience out of the reality of a precise place when you don’t.
Nor does this dive bar at any time feel like a bar in the Bronx. I understand that the director wanted a very bare stage, the actors moving a couple of yards from the bar stage right to Roberta’s bedroom stage left. But where were the photos of New York sports teams in the bar? We’re in the Bronx, after all, so a team photo of the Yankees would be the least you’d see.
There’d perhaps be Irish tricolour on the wall, or pictures of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. The preset music doesn’t suggest New York, or even an urban environment. There are no howling police sirens outside.
At one point, Roberta mentions that she was woken up by a birdsong outside, but the sound effect for this is a full-blown dawn chorus like it’s an April morning in Kew Gardens. The Bronx doesn’t sound like this.
In a play of only 80 minutes, which was written at the start of Shanley’s career, these things are important. The dynamic between Danny and Roberta is often exactly right, but a failure to root that action unambiguously and arrestingly in the Bronx of the playwright’s childhood and his imagination is to miss a trick.