Nursing beers and munching on pretzels, Danny and Roberta are sitting at neighboring tables in a Bronx bar as Hall & Oates’s slinky hit “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” booms out of the jukebox. “Where do you dare me/To draw the line?/You’ve got the body/Now you want my soul,” the song goes, as if laying out a playbook for the complicated courtship that they are about to enact.
These two hopeless loners are the only people in the bar in this Off Broadway revival of John Patrick Shanley’s “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea,” at the Lucille Lortel Theater. Though modest in scale, the show is one of the fall’s hottest thanks to its stars, Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott. Plaza, who is making her stage debut, has seen her screen career shift to a higher gear in the past few years, with acclaimed performances in the film “Emily the Criminal” and Season 2 of “The White Lotus.”
It’s easy to see why she and Abbott (an in-demand actor since making a name as the boyfriend of Allison Williams’s character on “Girls”) decided to do Shanley’s compact piece. Since its premiere, in 1984, the play has become a favorite of actors looking for audition monologues or mettle-testing exercises. Shanley’s writing sometimes devolves into hard-boiled mannerisms, but it also has a sharp pugnaciousness. As the story progresses, cracks appear in the barrage of hostilities, as the characters reveal flashes of circumspect vulnerability. Similarly, Abbott and Plaza’s performances move beyond histrionics and gain confidence as their characters start letting themselves feel.
When Danny and Roberta finally strike up a conversation, it immediately reveals their combustible approaches to life itself. She is a 31-year-old divorced mother who is unhappily living with her parents. He is 29, and informs Roberta that he plans to kill himself when he turns 30. (He puts it in blunter terms; most of the play’s best lines are laced with profanity.)
As quickly as their push-pull attraction is made clear, we realize that the characters’ default attack mode is a manifestation of their pain and self-loathing: Danny doesn’t know how to express himself without resorting to violence (we learn he recently beat up a man and left him for dead); Roberta is haunted by a traumatic episode that has filled her with soul-sapping guilt. The big question, then, is whether they will stop snarling long enough to realize solace is possible.
This early Shanley work feels like a matrix of some of the playwright’s themes: Guilt is also at the heart of his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Doubt: A Parable” (a 2004 play that is being revived on Broadway in February), and a romance between two prickly people is central to his screenplay for the 1987 film “Moonstruck.”
“Danny and the Deep Blue Sea” also bears quite a few markers of a certain kind of gritty theater from the 1970s and ’80s, centering as it does on bruised working-class characters whose lives are permeated with brutality. The New York Times review of the original production, which starred John Turturro and June Stein, mentions that as Danny, Turturro skillfully elicited laughs from the audience. Mores concerning depictions of and reactions to abuse have considerably shifted since then, and levity is mostly absent from Jeff Ward’s production, aside from some isolated line readings.
Tonally, the show struggles most to nail the first scene, which is nearly always at top volume. The characters can’t decide if they will throttle or embrace each other. We get it, but we still have to buy their picking the second option, and Abbott and Plaza don’t click enough at that point to entirely sell that scenario.
Fortunately their performances deepen in parallel with the accord between Roberta and Danny. Fittingly for a play subtitled “An Apache Dance,” after a type of belle epoque ruffians, the production’s turning point is a wordless danced transition: they push and pull, fight their attraction and give in to it. They end up in her room, where they have sex. (The movement direction is by Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber; Scott Pask designed the appropriately dingy set.)
As Roberta and Danny gingerly try to navigate the possibility of trust and emotional intimacy, the actors are more at ease with their roles and with each other. It is a testament to their skill that they are better at listening than at yelling.
Yes, Danny’s final turnaround stretches credibility close to its breaking point, and the way he finally pierces Roberta’s abscess of shame and fury is rather over the top — not to mention the idea that a physical remedy would shock a psychic wound into healing. But by then Abbott and Plaza have made us care enough for these two misfits that we are ready to believe that maybe, just maybe, they can get a break.
Danny and the Deep Blue Sea
Through Jan. 7 at the Lucille Lortel Theater, Manhattan; dannyandthedeepbluesea.com. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes.