A Bronx accent, an Irish name, and a broken heart are standard tools in John Patrick Shanley’s playwriting kit. OK, sometimes his characters are Italian and from Brooklyn, as was the case with his Oscar-winning Moonstruck. Yet Shanley’s New Yorkers are always native to both the IRT and the land of indigestible hurt. Desperate romantic yearning also suffuses his work, but then emotions have only two registers in his blue-collar neighborhoods—loud and louder.
An accidental Off-Broadway festival of Shanley plays maps out these subway tracks of tragicomic suffering, with a revival of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea at Second Stage and the premiere of Sailor’s Song in a LAByrinth Theater production at the Public. (Doubt, another new Shanley offering, opens next week at Manhattan Theatre Club.) In both Danny and Sailor’s Song, the desire to love deadlocks with the fear of loss, the conflict raging as much between bedmates as within the individual heart. Shanley’s method is to sketch figures on the precipice of intimacy, and then color them in (with gaudy flourishes) to make them more recognizably outer-borough.
The playwright’s setups can feel contrived in a way that invokes drama-school acting exercises. In Danny, a young man and woman sit alone in a Bronx bar—she noisily smashes pretzels, he gulps beer while trying to get her to stop. At first it’s a battle over who can be more obnoxious, but this doesn’t stop them from sleeping together. Later that evening, shocking revelations emerge as much from the longing to be known as from the defensive need to keep each other at bay.
Shanley tills rich thematic soil (the basic situation was recycled by Terrence McNally in Frankie and Johnny). But it’s the kind of theatrical anecdote that relies on actors to supply the nuance. In Leigh Silverman’s production, Adam Rothenberg and Rosemarie DeWitt walk a tightrope between dems-and-dose naturalism and cartoon stereotype. The story demands ridiculous about-faces from them, though both exude a hopeful warmth that’s infectious even when far-fetched.
In Sailor’s Song, a riveting performance by Danny Mastrogiorgio as Rich, a sailor tantalized by the romantic choice of two sisters (one attractively earthbound, the other alluringly otherworldly), lends ballast to a parable about the difference between giddy infatuation and mature love. Rich can’t choose between the two women because, as his soon-to-be-widowed uncle John (the craggily compelling Stephen Payne) tells him, he’s afraid to lose. Subtitled “A Watercolor,” the quirky piece fearlessly streaks its emotions across the stage, with moments of semi-awkward philosophizing mixing with bursts of dance (from a Strauss waltz to an Otis Redding interpretive explosion). Vintage Shanley in both its authenticity and obviousness, Sailor’s Song shows that the author’s brushwork, while still patently small-scale, has grown more confident over the years.