NoExit Performance offered only three productions of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea and since their venue was the Piccadilly Penthouse, only twenty people could attend each. I was curious about whether these limits would make the show artisanal or just gimmicky.
I also didn’t know anything about the play or the venue going in, so I was curious about them too. I didn’t care that the two actors — Justin Wade as Danny and Georgeanna Smith as Roberta — had recently gotten married in real life. Smith and director Michael Burke were destination artists for me already and I hoped Wade would be as good.
NoExit’s Mary Ferguson let me inside the Piccadilly’s locked lobby and checked my name off her list. I and the other audience members talked amongst ourselves while admiring the antique piano, the stacks of creaky books, and the old-timey prints on the walls. Residents came through carrying groceries and umbrellas. I tried and to imagine myself as the “dainty miss” portrayed in one of the prints and failed.
When it was time, we boarded the ornate elevator in groups of three or four, pulling both the gate and the regular door closed, and rode up to the penthouse. Michael Burke greeted us and invited us to look around.
The 10 p.m. performance I attended did not include dinner, but we could see the elegant table-scapes left over from the earlier performance that did. Someone had already washed the large, black dinner plates. They were face down, drying on a towel on the island in the kitchen.
I found a stacking washer-dryer in a closet I was probably not supposed to have opened but other than that, it didn’t feel as if anyone actually lived there. Another NoExit member, Bill Wilkison, told me that no one lives in the penthouse right now. People rent it by the night for parties and corporate retreats. Although there are no personal items, it is comfortably furnished. The views of Indianapolis from the tall living room windows or from either of the spacious terraces are stunning. I imagine the views inspire teams trying to articulate a vision statement or form a strategic plan.
Romantic, jazzy music was playing on the stereo system. “At last..” someone sang and I thought happily, “Well, I could live here. I could move in right now.”
Burke called us all back to seats in the cream-and-gold living room and told us that the action of the show would take place in several rooms, “so don’t get too comfortable. If you don’t move fast enough and you miss something, it will be your own fault.”
As Burke was talking, a door opened and a bruised man in suspenders stumbled out, holding a glass of beer. A woman came out, too, a moment later, and went between people to look out a window. She wore a long, silvery, fringed vest that made her black shorts and top look like a dress. Neither the man nor the woman acknowledged the other people in the room. It was as if we were ghosts.
They started talking and it was clear they were working class, from the Bronx (those thick accents!), and that they were just now meeting for the first time in a bar. But they were also in this upper class apartment with us, with the lights of Indianapolis spread out wide behind them. Maybe they were the ghosts, not us. They were not of this place but they were living out a story that could be anyone’s story, anywhere.
Both were drinking. Both were lonely. Both were battling demons.
The man, Danny, was afraid he had killed someone by beating him up in anger. His co-workers called him “Beast.” The dried blood on his knuckles looked real.
The woman, Roberta, assured him he probably hadn’t, and that if he wanted to hear something worse ... she had given her father a blow job on a whim to see if she could make him stop yelling. And it had worked. And then her father had wanted her to do it again and she discovered that refusing was another kind of power. She had never told anyone any of this before.
Danny and Roberta kept drinking and cursing and talking and moving among us as if we weren’t there. As if, in fact, there was no one else in the universe except the two of them. When she called him a "fag," taunting him, he slammed her up against the inside of one of the arched doorways. It looked as if he were truly choking her.
When he finally let her go and they fell into the next room, a slightly darker media room, aka an alley outside the bar, we all sat in shock for a moment but followed eagerly when NoExit’s Tommy Lewey led the way across the room after them.
In the next room, a man that had sat down in one of the few chairs got up and offered it to me. “Oh, that’s okay,” I whispered. “You go ahead.”
So we missed some dialogue but then Roberta was touching Danny in the same way she had touched her father. She undressed him down to his underwear. The audience member standing mere inches behind them looked around with a grin and caught my eye. “Yup,” I telegraphed back with my eyebrows. “I think she’s going to blow him right there in front of you.”
But then Roberta sort of swooped under Danny instead and led him into the dimly lit master bedroom, aka her room attached to her parents’ house.
We all trooped in after them and arranged ourselves around the big bed. I grabbed the one chair unapologetically. Everyone else stood. Light spilled in from the bathroom and there was one bedside lamp that got turned on and off.
A different whisper of recorded music accented each scene.
The sex and struggles in the bedroom were beautifully choreographed, too, but no less powerful for being stylized.
Roberta forced Danny to acknowledge that not only had he hurt others but someone had hurt him too. “Who hurt you?” she shouted, sitting on him and holding him down so that he had to look at her. There was healing in her looking at him, at all of him, both his brutality and his vulnerability.
[page]After sex, they shared more information and stories. Roberta told a story about seeing a bunch of whales stirring up the ocean, and then disappearing. She said she loved remembering, even after the surface of the water was smooth again, that the ocean still contained all of those whales.
Roberta also said, “We could be romantic. Let’s be romantic and nice to each other.”
And Danny said, “Wha? C’mon.” Or something like that.
But Roberta prompted him again and they awkwardly complimented each other. It was sweet.
They played around on the bed in their underwear and it truly seemed as if they thought they were the only people in the room.
They talked about marriage and kids. Roberta had been married before and had a 13-year-old son who lived with her parents. She also had a bride doll on a shelf near the bed. When Danny asked her to marry him, “square business” — for real — she said okay. They fell asleep curled up together.
In the middle of the night, though, Roberta went back to the other room to get their clothes. She came back in through the audience, sat on the end of the bed, and started to tenderly fold Danny’s shirt and pants. But then she threw them aside.
And then it was morning. Roberta told Danny she would make him breakfast but after that he would have to go. She headed out to the brightly-lit kitchen. Danny followed, and so did all of us, some sitting around the dining room table again, others standing.
Getting up and moving every few minutes took me out of the story every time. It made the whole experience feel more artificial than "regular" theatre, even though we could not possibly have been closer to the actors and they could not possibly have been more believable. It was voyeurism, not intimacy. I felt privileged but not connected.
Still, up until this point I had been accepting and enjoying this fast-paced, dreamlike piece as a worthy addition to the “one wild, transformational night” fantasy genre.
But then Roberta said in so many words, “Look, I can’t marry ya. Last night was great and all, but after what I did, I can’t marry anyone.”
And Danny, trying to say and do the right thing, said, “I forgive you.”
That’s when my bullshit-meter went off. “Wait a minute, bud,” I wanted to say. “You don’t have the power to forgive her. You’re just some random guy. Even if you were her best friend or her husband, you don’t have the power to forgive her. She has to forgive herself. She is the only one that can do that.”
I wanted to tell Roberta, “Look, you discovered a power you didn’t know you had, you misused it, and now you’re ashamed. But everyone makes mistakes and it’s not as if your parents helped you. I know it’s not easy but forgive yourself and move on.”
Meanwhile somewhere else in their conversation by the kitchen, Roberta said something about needing to be punished. She hit Danny and tried to force him to leave. When he stayed put, trying to figure out what to do, how to help her, she fell to the floor, weeping.
Then, somehow, they were in the TV room again and he had her over his knees, spanking her. I was the last one into that room so I missed what, if anything, was said before he started hitting her.
She cried out, “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to do it!” and he hit her again and again and again.
And we were all gathered around close, watching it happen, doing nothing to stop it. That just felt gross and wrong.
When Danny finally stopped hitting her, Roberta she sat up in tears and said, “Thank you. Thank you.”
Then they both said hopeful things about living the kind of lives that other people live. And that was the end.
And suddenly I wasn’t willing to suspend my disbelief at all. I hated that the playwright for permitting Roberta to be "healed" by being battered by Danny.
I realize now I am oversimplifying what happened, but that is how it felt to me in the moment.
Later, I looked up the playwright, John Patrick Shanley, and learned that he had written Moonstruck, a movie I love, and Doubt, a play that put me to sleep. (But that was more a result of being squished in the middle of a row of strangers in a too-warm theatre after a long work day than anything to do with the play itself.)
I also kept thinking about what it must have been like for Smith and Wade to perform Danny and the Deep Blue Sea in this odd way. Not only was the fourth wall firmly in place, it was if the actors were in a different dimension from the audience. Yet physically, actors and audience were almost rubbing shoulders.
The two actors had to trust each other, of course, but they also had to trust us, the audience, even more than actors usually do. If they had had a longer run, their audiences wouldn’t necessarily have continued to be mostly friends and family and theatre regulars, all on our best behavior in the tight spaces. And surely the actors couldn’t have gone on hitting and grappling with each other so realistically night after night.
But mostly I kept thinking about how believable they both were and how exquisitely they had brought these two characters to life under Burke’s direction. I didn’t buy the plot, but I totally bought Wade and Smith’s sympathetic portrayals of Danny and Roberta as two damaged human beings trying to save each other from drowning.
And really, who am I to judge anyone else’s healing or hope? Maybe Danny and Roberta will live happily ever after, now that they’ve had this one wild, transformative night together.
I was very glad I got to see this special show, but it also made me wish I could see Wade and Smith under Burke’s direction on a traditional stage, with no distractions from an unusual venue or unusual staging.