[Beauty and the Sea Monster]
There’s something beautiful about an actor returning to direct a pivotal play in their career, coming full circle and all that. While I can’t speak for the quality of Sara Wiseman’s performance in Silo’s 2004 production of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, she brings a deep understanding to the characters in her directorial debut that suggests she was probably brilliant.
Described as a Bronx retelling of the Beauty and the Beast, the play features the lonely souls of Roberta (Jodie Hillock) and Danny (Frank Borrell) who meet at a quiet bar. They’re not immediately likable characters, often opting for rudeness, anger and bitterness as their primary modes of communication.They’re the kind of people you wouldn’t want to bump into on the street. But they’re also startlingly real, the writing brimming with New York authenticity and a deep understanding of their flaws. While it’s almost become a cliche to write unlikable characters, John Patrick Shanley’s script predates this fad and in many respects perfects it. He doesn’t condone their behaviour, but he offers us a way to understand them. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they are both beauty and beast equally. They’re like the sadder, uncool rejects of a Scorsese film, and better for it.
The name of the show might take after one of the characters, but it is, thankfully, somewhat misleading. No, there’s never any doubt that Roberta has equal footing to Danny in this violent tango. What starts as a comedy of bad manners slowly morphs into a tragic but hopeful love story. But maybe more important than the question of love is the question of redemption. That seems to be the real driving force behind Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. Yes, it’s a love story. But it’s a love story for those who feel unlovable, those who feel unworthy of love.
In saying that, I didn’t completely buy the sexual chemistry between Hillock and Borrell at first. Both tend to play the anger and pain more so than the sensual. But it’s a choice that also feels true to the characters. There’s something needy and desperate about them that doesn’t demand the erotic energy that a conventional romance might. A need that isn’t driven by typical lust, but loneliness. Even when they compliment each other on their physical attributes, there’s never any shallowness, only tenderness.
At first glance, the script looks somewhat schematic with its three extended scenes, moving somewhat predictably from the bar to the bedroom to the morning after, peeling back the characters’ tough skins a little bit more every scene. But, while the structure might feel straightforward and old-fashioned, it’s in the telling that it feel timeless. It’s easy to forget how two people simply trying to connect can be the most powerful thing on stage, no narrative trickery or genre deconstruction necessary. Just playing the action as honestly as possible.
There are still potential moments of intimacy in the play that aren’t quite fully realised, either due to excessive projection or rushing over lines or actions. This isn’t helped staging the long stretch of the main space end-on, with two static set pieces for the two locations, which makes the space feel far more spread out than it should. And while the shabbiness of the props and furniture isn’t a major distraction, and is somewhat fitting, there’s no credited set designer and it definitely shows.
With Silo’s production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire also currently running, it’s hard not to compare the two American dramas. Both share a predilection for damaged characters hiding behind facades, but it’s the way which they differ that feels most striking. Where Williams pushes his protagonists towards breaking point with little redemption, Shanley refuses to have his characters stop fighting for each others. The distinction is one playwright attempting to show us the world as he sees it (cruel and unforgiving) and the other showing us the world as he thinks it should be (cruel but hopeful). I’m not going to suggest that we’re better off with one or the other, because it’s in seeing both that we can understand and reshape the world.
It’s not difficult to see why Wiseman wanted to remount this play. It’s actor-driven theatre through and through, full of beautiful writing that is both rough and poetic all at once. While the staging of the play isn’t perfect, it’s a production with performances that honour the characters and showcases a recent American classic. At just under 90-minutes, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea is well worth the dive.
Danny and the Deep Blue Sea plays until 2 Sept. Details see The Basement.
SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Nik Smythe