Full disclosure - I saw this Primary Stages production at the Cherry Lane Theatre on Tuesday the 20th and am writing the review today the 24th. I figured no one would be reading over the Thanksgiving Holiday - right? And a funny thing happened those four days - I could not stop thinking about Downstairs. That in itself was enough to make me sit up and take notice.
I have always been a fan of Theresa Rebeck. She has the ability to knit together fully formed characters and lock them together like small tidal waves. In Downstairs, we meet a trinity: Teddy (Tim Daly) and his sister Irene (Tyne Daly) and Irene's husband Gerry (John Procaccino). That set up alone will prepare you for conflict. Add to this that the entire goings on take place in the basement of Irene and Gerry's home puts the cherry on top. Basements are never up to any good - through no fault of their own. Things are put down there never to be seen again. Basements are dark. The stairs leading to them are rickety. The lighting is usually one bare bulb with a pull-chain.
Once you are in a basement - or as it is called here "Downstairs" there is no place to hide. Which these three characters find out in spades. Teddy is crashing on the couch and has been there for a week. He says he is on a sort of sabbatical from his job as if saying it would make it true. He has plans, he tells Irene. Big plans. Teddy is one sandwich shy of a picnic which does not stop him from knowing a thing or two. One part of him is lost in the marshland of life's daily requirements, and another part is very clear regarding the financial situation in which Irene finds herself. It ain't good.
Irene and Gerry have been married for so long that they move in parallel lanes. They do not touch or come together in any meaningful way. They exist and not much more.
Irene is a sweet and lonely person who does not know why her husband treats her with disdain and would, frankly, rather not talk about it. Even with her brother who is eager to do so. Irene chose marriage because, well, it was the thing to do. She has spent her life yearning for something more and not getting it. No children, no pets, no love. And no way out.
Gerry is a large and very sad and very angry man who considers his home his castle because he can. He is, in a word, a tyrant. He is a careful tyrant, however, whose very breath is so quiet and menacing that a person would think twice before questioning him about pretty much anything. Except for Teddy, who does not have sense enough to be warned off.
This is one of the classic dramatic themes: stranger comes into town and everything goes ass over teakettle. Teddy's very presence is enough to cause ripples of discord in Gerry's life and therefore in Irene's. The pacing is nearly Hitchcock. The characters are set up and delivered by each of the actors with sensitivity and restraint. Each of them plays against "type". All three are known for smart patter and seamless timing on the New York Stage as well as television. Nearly all opportunity for that is removed here, and each actor steps up to the plate and flies just under the radar in that zone that makes us all uncomfortable as well as vulnerable.
Under the skillful direction of Adrienne Campbell-Holt, and aided by the brilliant set design by Narelle Sissons, this play brings home the goods (in spite of a slightly contrived conclusion that didn't live up to the promise of the elements that preceded it). This is a play that gets under your skin for all the right reasons. There is no specific time mentioned in the story, which is a brilliant choice, so we cannot say, "Oh this is what happened to women back then." This is very much a story of the present, and that is perhaps why it has stayed with me. There are unhappy couples sprinkled everywhere int he world who are choosing to be locked into what they know rather than face the terror of what they would have to go through to be free. Sometimes all it takes is one person who asks, "How come?" to shift the sands.
(Photo by James Leynse)
"Directed with striking clarity and command by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, Downstairs is a well-constructed play of whipsaw moods that have much to do with Teddy’s instability — a restless volatility that Mr. Daly struggles to embody in a performance that is the production’s most amusing yet least convincing. But this is ultimately a kind of horror story, and in its second half we understand that the danger has been lurking in the house all along."
Laura Collins-Hughes for New York Times
"Presented by Primary Stages, Theresa Rebeck’s new play Downstairs opened Sunday at the Cherry Lane Theatre, and it’s a very exceptional thriller — one that’s distinguished, in part, because you don’t know it’s a thriller until Rebeck and director Adrienne Campbell-Holt send out their first shock wave a good hour into this 105-minute drama."
Robert Hofler for The Wrap
"Just because a play can keep you guessing doesn't necessarily mean it should. Theresa Rebeck's new thriller receiving its New York premiere at off-Broadway's Primary Stages is a prime example. A quasi-Hitchcockian tale about two adult siblings whose relationship is threatened by forces both internal and external, Downstairs stretches credulity to the breaking point. Although the production offers the welcome opportunity for real-life brother and sister Tyne Daly and Tim Daly to make their first joint appearance on a New York stage, it provides them with little more than a gimmicky acting vehicle."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
External links to full reviews from popular press...