The greatest thrill of Theresa Rebeck’s thriller is seeing Tyne Daly (Cagney and Lacey) and Tim Daly (The Sopranos, Madame Secretary) act together on stage for the first time. Rebeck wrote “Downstairs” specifically for the siblings, who portray brother and sister — Teddy, who may be crazy, and Irene, who may be terrorized.
Teddy has moved into Irene’s basement (an imposing, dilapidated wooden fire hazard of a set designed by Narelle Sissons, with a creaky staircase put to good dramatic use.) Teddy putters around half-naked, and, when Irene comes down to visit, mutters about having been slowly poisoned at work, though he no longer seems employed. “I’d call this a hiatus,” he tells his sister.
Old resentments surface. Teddy, affectionate toward his sister but vulnerable, feels he was cheated out of their mother’s inheritance. Irene enjoys his company, but she is exasperated, wondering aloud what he’s trying to get away with this time. They argue over the computer in the basement, whether it’s working or not; Irene insists it isn’t. “It works fine,” he yells at her. Then he apologizes.
“I’m not angry, I’m just frustrated because you come down here and
“I’m not judging you.”
“You are judging my life choices.”
“If I could figure out what your life choices are I might judge them but..”
“Oh that’s nice.”
Their bickering feels well-observed and is well-played. What at first promises to be a dysfunctional family drama takes a turn into a different genre, with the introduction of Irene’s husband Gerry, both as a subject and as a looming presence (portrayed by a terrific John Procaccino.) Terry thinks there is a demon who lives in Gerry.
Who is telling the truth? Who is unstable? Who is the menace?
That we ask these questions is a testament to the skill of the playwright in creating suspense. Rebeck, still best known as the creator of Smash on TV, is a prolific playwright whose most recent of her four Broadway productions, “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” finished its run earlier this month. It’s pertinent to point out that she was also awarded the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award, for episodes of the old TV series NYPD Blue.
However, as she demonstrated in “Dead Accounts,” which lasted two months on Broadway in 2012, Rebeck is better at creating suspense than at making it pay off. “Downstairs” has a better pay-off than Dead Accounts did — there was a collective audience gasp at the first reveal – but, while the mystery is resolved, it’s never fully explained. Much happens off-stage; details are left vague. It’s as if Rebeck is taking her cue from her character Teddy, who hints to Irene that he’s working on an important project, but won’t say what it is: “Talking about it in the specific is not going to help you understand it. You just have to trust me. It’s pretty big.”
The lacuna in the script wasn’t a deal-breaker for me. It may be intended to heighten the audience anxiety (a la horror films like “The Blairwitch Project.”) It also feeds several of the themes. One can never be completely sure of the motives of another human being. Sometimes evil won’t be spelled out for you.
It’s also nice to have a sibling. That’s actually a lesson for the audience, especially since Tyne (Tony for Gypsy) and Tim (Theatre World Award for Coastal Disturbances) are both award-winning Broadway veterans.
Primary Stages at Cherry Lane
Written by Theresa Rebeck; Directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt.
Set design by Narelle Sissons, costume design by Sarah Laux, lighting design by Michael Giannittati, sound design by M.L. Dogg
Cast: Tyne Daly, Tim Daly and John Procaccino
Running time: One hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.
Tickets: $82 – $102. Student rush: $20.
Downstairs is on stage through December 22, 2018
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