2023 – New York Times
September 13, 2023
“Oh, put it down. Down the hatch,” Aubrey Plaza said while eating pizza for breakfast, in a downtown Los Angeles restaurant that was otherwise deserted on a late-August Friday morning.
Her colleague, Christopher Abbott, was assessing the spread of carbs, dairy, prosciutto and espresso on the table, declaring it a “nightmare for the gut.”
“You have your fiber pills in the car. Why don’t you go get them?” Plaza said, teasingly, unleashing objections from Abbott before she hastily backpedaled. “They’re mine, they’re mine. I take them.”
Four years after meeting on the set of the comedic thriller “Black Bear,” the actors are working together again, this time on an Off Broadway revival of John Patrick Shanley’s play “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea,” in which they will portray strangers who become lovers after meeting at a dive bar in the Bronx.
Plaza is making her theatrical debut in the two-person play, which begins performances on Oct. 30 at the Lucille Lortel Theater in the West Village, and the only person she could see herself sharing it with was Abbott, an experienced stage actor with whom she shares both an artistic symmetry and a knowing, playful rapport.
After years spent proving that she could be much more than versions of April Ludgate, the comically unaffected, scowl-prone intern in “Parks and Recreation,” Plaza, 39, has become one of the most sought-after actresses in Hollywood. Her performance as a jaded lawyer in Season 2 of the HBO series “The White Lotus” was an audience favorite, and her role as a budding scammer in the big-screen thriller “Emily the Criminal” was praised by critics for its ferocity and nuance.
At the same time, she has reached a level of celebrity where, to some, she has become less known for her association with any particular character than for just being herself: an internet darling known for impassively delivering outlandish, sometimes sinister commentary that can leave late-night hosts unsure if she is joking.
In Abbott, 37, who played a lovelorn boyfriend with a dark turn in the HBO comedy “Girls,” Plaza has found a co-star who seems to know exactly when she’s joking, gamely joining in on the weirdness with which she has become associated.
While mulling the menu, Abbott responded with an exaggerated Italian accent when Plaza assumed one, later testing aloud his gruff Bronx brogue for the play. (“Do you wanna hee-yuh what I’m wuh-kin on?” Abbott blurted. “I’m going for an Andrew Dice Clay kind of thing.”)
“He cares but he also doesn’t care; it’s the best recipe for me for a scene partner,” Plaza said, resembling a mid-20th-century movie star with her shoulder-length hair loosely curled and dark-rimmed sunglasses propped atop her head. “It’s fun and it’s also good and it’s also safe. I like to just throw things out the window also and laugh and mess around and not take it so seriously. It’s a hard combo to come by.”
The feeling is mutual. “We’re both unafraid to be ugly and weird and strange,” said Abbott, who started his professional acting career 15 years ago in an Off Broadway production of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s “Good Boys and True,” about a scandal at a prep school.
Plaza’s first play as a professional actress is not a tame one. Her character, Roberta, is a lonely divorcée who is both desperate for love and confident that all she deserves is punishment; Abbott’s character, Danny, is a lonely brute who will start a fight over the most minor of slights. Together, they fall into a cycle of screaming, crying, slapping, choking and expletive-laced bickering. There is also kissing, cuddling, tender touching and musings on fairy-tale love.
PLANS FOR THE PLAY were solidified well before Hollywood writers and actors went on strike, resulting in the industrywide shutdown. Over a year ago, Jeff Ward, an actor (“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”) who is directing “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea,” pitched the idea to Abbott, a friend and former roommate. Abbott immediately agreed, and in reading the short description of Roberta in Shanley’s script, he thought of Aubrey.
“I don’t want to paraphrase it,” Abbott began, “but it was something like — —”
“Sexy…,” Plaza suggested. “Beautiful … broken?” (In fact, it was Roberta’s “nervous bright eyes” that made him think of Plaza for the role.)
If not for the strike, Plaza would have spent much of the summer filming a movie, “Animal Friends,” alongside Ryan Reynolds and Jason Momoa. Abbott would have been traveling to the Venice Film Festival for the premiere of the surreal comedy “Poor Things” (where it would go on to win the Golden Lion) and Ward would have been in Japan promoting the live-action manga series “One Piece.” It just so happened that amid the strike, the actors and their director had time to simply talk about the play and what they might do with it.
“It feels like the secret ingredient to this whole thing might be time,” Ward said. “A little extra time.”
Part of what they are working through is an idea that Ward said came to him years ago, when he and Abbott were living in Bushwick. They met about 14 years ago at an audition for a play: Abbott got the job, while Ward was hired as his understudy. At parties, Ward, an experimental dance enthusiast, noticed that Abbott was a good dancer, and thought they might one day collaborate on something involving movement.
Then last year, while thinking about ways to incorporate choreography into a production of “Danny,” Ward picked up a copy of the script with the work’s full title: “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea: An Apache Dance.”
The subtitle is a reference to a French dance style, developed into a popular cabaret act in the early 1900s, that mixes a seductive kind of tango with a violent domestic battle in which the dancers fling each other around in between loving détentes.
It was a common pop cultural reference in the 1950s and ’60s, when Shanley was growing up in the east Bronx. The dance appears in old movies like “Can-Can,” with Shirley MacLaine; cartoons like “Louvre Come Back to Me!,” featuring Pepé Le Pew; and sitcoms like “I Love Lucy.” In that show’s first season, Ethel Mertz describes it as the dance “where the tough Frenchman grabs the girl by the hair and throws her over his shoulder and slams her down on the floor and steps on her.”
A reader of the script will quickly see what Shanley meant with the subtitle. After Danny and Roberta meet, their encounter swings between desperate affection and uncontrollable, instinctual aggression. (Shanley based Danny’s proclivity for fistfights on his own teenage tendencies.)
“I put that in there to give some guidance as to how the play might be done,” Shanley said of the subtitle in a phone interview. “It’s really about the interior life of these two people and how they meet and explode by touching each other.”
Shanley, who has won an Oscar (for “Moonstruck”) and a Tony (for “Doubt: A Parable,” which is receiving its own starry revival on Broadway in February), gave Ward, a first-time director, his blessing to revive “Danny.” It premiered in 1984 at the Humana Festival in Louisville, Ky., with John Turturro and June Stein, before transferring to New York. (In his New York Times review, Mel Gussow wrote that the play “is the equivalent of sitting at ringside watching a prize fight that concludes in a loving embrace.”) Shanley is also allowing Ward to develop movement beyond the script’s stage direction, though he said he would make his feelings known if he disliked the additions.
Those additions will be choreographed by Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber, whose gestural, sometimes pedestrian movements have depicted the inner lives of a couple, with an intimacy that almost makes observers feel as if they’re witnessing something they shouldn’t.
For Abbott and Plaza, whose dance background consists of Irish step dancing as a child, a sense of voyeurism is exactly what they want the audience to feel as Danny and Roberta fall into mad, improbable love.
“We’re doing this play every night for an audience, but I think you also have to do it for each other,” said Abbott, who looked character-appropriate in a white T-shirt and chain necklace, a fishing hook tattoo visible on his forearm. “We want to entertain the audience, but I personally want to entertain Aubrey.”
“I guess I like to entertain him as well,” Plaza said, adopting a voice like a hostage reading from a script before breaking into a smile.
PLAZA AND ABBOTT both grew up far outside the Hollywood machine: she in Delaware, he in Connecticut. Both developed their love for movies working in video stores, and after deciding that she wanted to become an actor as a child, Plaza started out in entertainment as a “Saturday Night Live” set design intern and an NBC page. Abbott discovered acting later, in a drama class at a local community college, which led him to drop out and move to New York to study it more seriously.
More than 15 years later, both actors have become recognizable faces onscreen and have gradually broken free from the association of the roles that made them famous.
Since “Girls,” Abbott has taken on complex, often tortured parts in films like “James White,” about an unemployed man facing the weight of his mother’s terminal illness, and “Sanctuary,” about a hotel scion determined to break up with his longtime dominatrix. In one of his most prominent roles, he starred as the spiraling Air Force bombardier John Yossarian in the 2019 television adaptation of the novel “Catch-22.”
“He has an explosive side to him,” Shanley said of Abbott. “There’s always a feeling of instability and danger.”
Since “Parks and Recreation,” Plaza has hosted “S.N.L.,” received her first Emmy nomination for her performance in “White Lotus,” and taken on producing roles to gain more control over scripts she feels particularly drawn to, including “Emily the Criminal” and “Ingrid Goes West,” in which she plays an Instagram-obsessed stalker. She has stepped away from the comfort of dark indie comedy to take on a glamorous, gun-wielding action film role in this year’s “Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre,” and she recently fulfilled a dream of working with Francis Ford Coppola on his long-awaited epic “Megalopolis.”
“Black Bear,” a movie within a movie set in the Adirondack Mountains, was one of those scripts that Plaza leaped at, becoming both a producer and lead actress opposite Abbott.
“Unfortunately we can’t really talk about that movie,” Plaza said, citing the continuing strike by SAG-AFTRA, the actors’ union, that prohibits actors from promoting films and TV shows that have already been completed. (Plaza picketed last month alongside a miniature horse named Li’l Sebastian, a local celebrity in the Indiana town where “Parks and Recreation” is set.)
But contained in that psychological thriller are hints of what could take place onstage in “Danny,” including Abbott’s wrestling, sometimes messily, with his character’s masculinity, Plaza’s talent for portraying the unhinged, and moments of crackling intimacy between them.
Their characters’ relationship in “Black Bear” is shape-shifting: At first, Abbott, a soon-to-be father, can’t suppress his attraction to a houseguest (Plaza) despite the presence of his pregnant girlfriend. In the movie’s second half, the women’s roles are flipped, and Plaza is a wife tortured by jealousy, eventually descending into a drunken fit of rage and hopelessness.
“From ‘Black Bear,’ it was clear that it was going to be electric. There was no ‘getting to know you’ section,” Ward said. “There’s just something about the way they match up.”
THE TWO ACTORS encountered “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea” in acting school — not uncommon since the play, with a surplus of opportunities to emote, is a favorite of theater classes and auditions. The actor Sam Rockwell, one of the revival’s producers, recalled doing snippets in auditions for “Last Exit to Brooklyn” (he got the part) and “The Godfather Part III” (he didn’t).
Abbott approached Plaza about the role unsure if she would be open to it. Although she had acted in community theater as a child — “Miracle on 34th Street” and “Cinderella,” in which she played a stepsister — and trained in improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade, this would be something new altogether.
But after Plaza read “Danny,” she knew they had to do it.
“I cried. I laughed. I loved it,” she said.
Despite its ubiquity, the play has had only one other Off Broadway production since its premiere — in 2004, starring Adam Rothenberg and Rosemarie DeWitt — and there has never been a Broadway production.
In a phone interview, Rockwell said he suggested the production keep it that way, at least for now, even though Abbott and Plaza’s name recognition could potentially rake in ticket sales on Broadway. “I think a lot of plays have failed on Broadway because they were really meant to be Off Broadway,” said Rockwell, who is working on the show with his producing partner Mark Berger. “They had that funky quality.”
After all, “Danny” is not the kind of inspirational, affirming fare that is likely to prompt theatergoers to buy T-shirts or bring their children. It’s about two damaged, shame-ridden people trying to find a way out of their own misery.
“There are all different kinds of love stories, and this is just one of them,” Plaza said. “And I don’t like the idea that every piece of art that’s out there has to have some kind of social commentary or political message. It’s a play. They’re characters.”
Over the remaining slice of pizza, Abbott agreed — “the ‘why now’ question is always like, ‘why not?’” — and explained that like Plaza, he had learned over the years to care about the work without caring how that work was going to benefit his career.
“I don’t know — I just want to do it,” Abbott said. “I’ve let go of the question of what is it going to do for me.”
Plaza squinted down at the crumb-covered pizza peel. It had hearts and the phrase “Happy Galentine’s Day” carved into it, a reference to a bit from “Parks and Recreation” that has caught on to the point of becoming a full-fledged holiday.
“Is this a joke?” she asked, turning around to see if anyone might have been behind this. “It’s like I can’t escape. I’m trying to do a play. Can’t I just do a play without somebody reminding me that I was on network television?”