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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.
Rebeck’s second new play this season following the Broadway premiere of Bernhardt/Hamlet, Downstairs was originally seen at Vermont’s Dorset Theatre Festival. The play is set in the run-down basement of the home owned by working-class Irene (Ms. Daly) and her husband Gerry (John Procaccino). The couple has had a houseguest for the last week in the form of Irene’s brother Teddy (Mr. Daly), who was recently let go from his job. It becomes immediately apparent that there’s something off about Teddy, who seems perfectly content eating cereal, sleeping on a ratty couch and tinkering with the vintage computer that Irene keeps insisting is broken.
Irene does what she can to be a good host, bringing Teddy homecooked lasagna and visiting him during the day while her husband is at work. But she finds it difficult dealing with her brother’s apparent paranoia and delusions. That includes his claims about having been poisoned by a co-worker at his office and, despite having no money, being on the cusp of a huge investment opportunity. The two engage in long, rambling conversations about their troubled childhood and Irene’s stress-filled marriage to Gerry, whom Teddy accuses of being a “demon.”
Irene is deeply concerned about her younger brother. “Have you been getting enough sleep?” she asks worriedly. “Sleeping is overrated,” he replies. She’s also more than a little afraid of her domineering husband, who wants Teddy out of the house. While she’s away shopping, Gerry pays Teddy a visit and makes his feelings very much known in a menacing exchange, telling the houseguest he’s got to pack up and go.
Rebeck ratchets up the tension slowly until a confrontation between Gerry and Irene that had the audience gasping. But she does so too slowly; despite the relatively short 105-minute running time, the play feels repetitive and windy, its slackness preventing narrative momentum from taking hold.
The playwright wrote Downstairs at Mr. Daly’s request, and it too often seems that way, more designed to showcase the actors’ talents than to express anything meaningful. The work is marked by red herrings and misdirection, alternating between frustrating ambiguities and overly explicit plot developments. The only consistent thing about it is that none of it rings remotely true.
The production would founder completely save for the estimable acting talents on display. The Daly siblings deliver complex, nuanced performances that somehow keep us guessing about their characters even while we’re losing interest. Tim infuses Teddy with a vulnerability that makes him endearing even as he’s seemingly off the rails, while Tyne’s milquetoast Irene ultimately proves surprisingly indomitable. Procaccino has a tougher time bringing shading to the one-note, villainous Gerry, but he’s compelling to watch in his coiled intensity.
Adrienne Campbell-Holt’s slack direction does little to enhance the suspense, although Michael Giannitti’s lighting and M.L. Dogg’s sound design make valuable contributions to the noirish atmosphere. But despite the proliferation of talent both on and offstage, Downstairs never rises above its contrivances.
Venue: Cherry Lane Theatre, New York
Cast: Tim Daly, Tyne Daly, John Procaccino
Playwright: Theresa Rebeck
Director: Adrienne Campbell-Holt
Set designer: Narelle Sissons
Costume designer: Sarah Laux
Lighting designer: Michael Giannitti
Sound designer: M.L. Dogg
Presented by Primary Stages, in association with Jamie deRoy and Dan Frishwasser
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