The Evolution of John Patrick Shanley: From 'Danny' to 'Doubt,' the Bronx to Brooklyn Heights, the Playwright Contemplates a Fate He Never Envisioned
Coe, Robert, American Theatre
John Patrick Shanley's Bronx characters don't sidle up and ask--they demand to be seen and heard. Saying exactly what they feel, almost without appearing to think about it, they're posturing and naked at once, far-fetched, mercurial and profane, and they effortlessly own the stage. This fall theatre season in New York is offering a major revival of Shanley's electrifying first drama, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, a 1984 two-hander "dedicated to everyone in the Bronx who punched me or kissed me, and to everyone whom I punched or kissed"--by a man inducted this past summer into the Bronx Walk of Fame. The play opened at Second Stage on Oct. 21. Five days later, New York audiences began catching up to Shanley's present work at the Public Theatre's Shiva Theatre, where the LAByrinth Theater Company is presenting the world-premiere production of one of the playwright's most radical stylistic experiments to date: Sailor's Song, a love story with dancing (to waltzes by Johann Strauss), set in an imagined seaside town, about a cynical man and a true believer battling over two beautiful women and the nature of love.
A second new play will open on Nov. 22 at Manhattan Theatre Club's New York City Center Stage I, and will play this spring at California's Pasadena Playhouse: Doubt, a drama set in the 1960s at a Bronx Catholic School--the story of a stern principal, Sister Aloysius (Cherry Jones), who grows suspicious of a priest who seems to be taking too much interest in a young male student. Night and day from the animal vitality of Danny, Doubt unfolds in a spirit of poetic restraint and deep seriousness, and it reads as Shanley's most powerful play in years.
This would seem an ideal moment to reconsider the career of an off-center playwright frequently viewed as an eccentric, vulgar provisioner for scenery-chewing actors, but who is in fact a deeply ambitious artist working through primal themes, in a language that people actually use and a voice as recognizable as David Mamet's (although less easily caricatured). An overview of his work reveals a more substantial, shapelier body than this reader had previously imagined, as well as an integrity and steadily deepening gravitas suited to a writer now nearing 54 and living comfortably in Brooklyn Heights, with a leafy school ground for a backyard, since 2000.
Formerly married, now divorced and co-parenting 12-year-olds Nick and Frank, and after two decades toiling with mixed success and failure in the killing fields of Hollywood, Shanley has settled into a solid maturity that, as he once told a journalist, leaves behind the "electric leaps" of youth in favor of "a more considered attempt to converse and discover connection."
It was slightly over 20 years ago that Danny burst onto the American theatre scene with two vivid characters, described by the author as "violent and battered, inarticulate and yearning to speak, dangerous and vulnerable," locked in mortal combat, longing and, eventually, a kind of love. From the beginning Shanley exhibited a seemingly effortless mastery of the rhythms of hostility and longing, along with a natural gift for instilling tremendous spiritual ambition in his characters--a willingness to leap, to let go, far more often than to hesitate and cling. Whether in doubt or rapture, Shanley's characters are unafraid of speaking in banalities or in wild poetic flight--or, when they are afraid of something, then the playwright confronts those fears head-on. (Courage and determination are subjects that Shanley has revisited throughout his career.)
Each of the Bronx plays that followed Danny would be about people wanting either IN or OUT--another way of saying that these plays are about dramatic change and a challenge to imposed definitions and boundaries, especially the ones between the Bronx/Manhattan and victimhood/liberation. Shanley's characters seek transcendence, connection and new identities, via more than words alone: They touch, sweat, spit and spray every available bodily fluid in that alternately claustrophobic and explosive atmosphere that has characterized most of the canonical mainstream of 20th-century American drama. …