John Patrick Shanley's Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, now playing at the Phoenix Theatre in Breach Once More's inaugural production, is a little bit like Edward Albee's The Zoo Story, in which two strangers meet on a park bench and the first persuades the second to murder the first, except in Shanley's play, the pair take a different but no less extreme course of action: One proposes to the other.
Yet Shanley's play also involves the killing of a stranger -- maybe. We're in a bar in the Bronx, and characters' accents alone are tough enough to punch you in the face. But bellicose intonation is not enough for Danny (Steve Bologna), a young man with a chip, nay, the Mariana Trench, on his shoulder. "I think I killed a guy last night," he says to Roberta (April Fritz), who's catatonically munching pretzels at the next table and won't share her snack. We believe him. Bologna's Danny sees a predator in every male who casts a gaze in his general vicinity; he is itching for a chance to overturn tables and chairs and throw somebody down.
Shanley's play idealizes being messed up. Danny and Roberta's confessions of pain and sin tumble out preposterously, as if they're competing for the title of most broken human being, as if both had been waiting their whole lives for a chance to share, despite being self-proclaimed loners. Roberta has never forgiven herself for giving her father a blowjob when she was much younger; she is paralyzed, unable to own her life, or even take care of her child, because of her crippling belief that she's a bad person. This new intimacy efficiently crumbles Danny's aggression; suddenly he is all childlike candor, saying, "Everything hurts all the time, except when I'm jumping somebody."
The creaky playwriting mechanism melts the characters' icy exteriors then plunks them into a sex scene. Fritz, to her credit, makes a striking transition from a pouty and petulant girl from down the block to a woman cautiously, tenderly opening herself. Whenever she talks about love, it is always in the future tense: "We're gonna love each other" or "Let's be romantic," and Fritz delivers these lines like a defeated woman trying to talk herself into the idea that love could, one day, be real. Bologna, for his part, has a harder transition to make in this part of the play, and he doesn't quite pull it off. He must make Roberta and the audience believe that a far-fetched promise made in the heat of passion and under the influence of alcohol is the most real, important thing in his life and that it should be for Roberta, too. It's a matter of finding the emotional inverse of the paranoid machismo Danny breathes like fire in the first scene, and Bologna only gets most of the way there. Unfortunately, that's the hinge on which the believability of this play pivots.
But let us remember that Breach Once More is a brand spanking new theater company (founded by current and recently graduated S.F. State students), and that Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, under the direction of Lauren Burgat, is their first production. As their company name suggests, they have made a bold entry into the S.F. theater scene, and we look forward to seeing their future work.
Danny and the Deep Blue Sea continues through Feb. 16 at the Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason, S.F. and through Feb. 23 at the Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy, S.F. Admission is $15-$20.