Early Shanley Studies

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Before John Patrick Shanley wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for Moonstruck and the Pulitzer-Prize winning play Doubt, he got his break back in 1984 with a two-person show titled Danny & the Deep Blue Sea. It's a gritty, beer-soaked tale of a one-night stand that threatens to become something more. The world premiere starred John Turturro as Danny and it jump-started both his and Shanley's career. In the years since, the play has often been revived in small theaters because it's a perfect showcase for two young, charismatic actors. This summer, it was revived here in LA at the Lillian Theatre and proved so successful that it's been extended at the Elephant Performance Lab next door.


Act I opens with a women, Roberta, drinking alone. Moody, punk music blasts from the speakers and a smoky mist fills the stage. Enter Danny, who says nothing but pours a pitcher of beer over his bleeding fist. The set is just smoke, the hazy light and two adjacent tables. Actors Daniel De Weldon and Deborah Dir make Shanley's pungent, staccato dialogue believable. They come across as two wild, urban animals who have collided and are distrustfully but curiously sniffing each other out. When they leave the bar together at the end of the scene, it has the appropriate feeling of inevitability.

After intermission, however, the scene is less evocative and so is Shanley's language. The set is no longer impressionistic. The setting is Roberta's disheveled room in her parents' Bronx apartment and everything is seen in plain light. Likewise, Danny and Roberta's dialogue is less guarded and more prone to devolving into cliché. Here in this longer act, Danny & the Deep Blue Sea begins to feel more like an actor's showcase, instead of vital, living theater.


This month, another small theater in Hollywood is reviving another early Shanley play, the 1986 drama titled the dreamer examines his pillow. This play is also about a volatile man and woman from the Bronx, but it adds an older character into the mix. The first scene has the young Tommy and Donna at each other's throats and it comes off like a dry run for the famous scene in Moonstruck, when Nick Cage tells Cher he loves her and she slaps him and says "Snap outta of it."

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Jeffery Stubblefield lacks the dopey charm of the young Nick Cage (but then again, who doesn't—even the older Nick Cage) still, he makes for a passable lug. Amanda Tepe on the other hand has an unconvincing outer-borough accent and she plays Donna with a bug-eyed frenzy like the next-door neighbor on a sitcom.

Enter the recognizable character actor, Eddie Jones, as "Dad." He and Donna spar in Scene 2, where we realize that Donna loves her philandering, egocentric, painter boyfriend, because she was raised by a philandering, egocentric, painter father.

This never leads to any action (or even dialogue) that's too substantive, but with the two actors from Danny & the Deep Blue Sea, maybe the first scene of the dreamer examines his pillow could work. However, I doubt even a more polished actor than Mr. Jones (who had trouble with his lines the opening week) could bring focus to the rest of Shanley's drippy, undramatic canvas. This early piece doesn't even really work as a character portrait, at best it's a sketch or study—a two hour one at that—that barely hints at the assured hand that would eventually write Doubt.

John Patrick Shanley's the dreamer examines his pillow runs through October 14 at the McCadden Place Theatre; Danny & The Deep Blue Sea runs at the Elephant Performance Lab through October 6.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.