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‘Danny’ errs in pitting actors against each other

Things go wrong immediately with Cockroach Theatre’s two-person production of “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea.”

The evening begins when an usher asks audience members to pick a side to sit in. One is a cheering section for a character named Roberta (Mundana Ess-Haghabadi); the other is for Danny (Ernie Curcio). Trouble is, if you don’t know the play, you have no idea whom to cheer.

And this isn’t the sort of story where one character is pitted against the other. Both young drifters are frightened, violent people who manage to find some peace together. Separating the audience into sides might make sense at the intermission of a play like David Mamet’s “Oleanna,” or almost anything by George Bernard Shaw; but not here, where we’re meant to root for both parties.

Soon, we meet Curcio as the don’t-mess-with-me psychotic. The young, gifted actor plays this guy the way he plays all his roles of late: morbidly and artificially intense, with a threatening sneer and a lack of any hint of subtlety. You may admire Curcio’s acting tricks, but you’re always aware that he’s acting.

Surprisingly, Ess-Haghabadi seems to be genuinely in tune with everything going on around her. She could use tighter body control, but her face registers the impact of whatever Danny says to her. She gets under her character’s skin; despite all her bravado, you can feel her vulnerability.

John Patrick Shanley’s script is like a sordid Neil LaBute drama, but with much more humor. Director Erik Amblad, though, makes a major mistake in directing the confrontations as if they were a boxing match. The two actors sit at bar tables on opposite sides of the stage for much of the first section, so that the audience has to strain to look at one character, then dart over to look at the other. During this time, you never get to see both actors in the same “frame.”

But Amblad demonstrates a strong, sensitive hand in bringing out the best in Ess-Haghabadi. I wish the script weren’t quite so contrived, and I wish the small stage weren’t so visually unappealing.

Still, there are flashes of professionalism that make this sea, well, worth charting.

Anthony Del Valle can be reached at vegastheaterchat @aol.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.

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