December 1, 2018

Its Stars Are the Only Upside to "Downstairs"

Over the past decade the playwright Theresa Rebeck has had four shows premiere on Broadway and at least a half dozen others open in major off-Broadway productions.  And I can’t figure out why. Rebeck has a fine ear for dialog and a knack for coming up with intriguing situations and interesting characters for her shows but she never seems to know quite what to do with them. 

That was certainly the case with Bernhardt/Hamlet, her comedy in which Janet McTeer played the legendary 19th century actress Sarah Bernhardt and that finished an eight-week run at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre last month. And it's true once again with Downstairs, a drama that is now playing in a Primary Stages production at the Cherry Lane Theatre through Dec. 22.

This time out the characters are the middle-aged siblings Teddy and Irene. The situation is that Teddy, who’s lost his job and maybe his grip on reality, has moved into the basement of the home that Irene, a timid woman who keeps her head down as though bracing for a blow, shares with her husband Gerry.

As attentively designed by Narelle Sissons, the cramped and cluttered basement is not a comfortable space. But Teddy—sleeping on a discarded sagging sofa, making breakfast out of coffee brewed in an electronic pot and dry cereal poured into a dusty bowl, and idling away his time on an old computer—seems eager to extend his stay there.

 And although the siblings squabble over trite things like whether Teddy should be puttering around all day in his underwear; and not-so-trite things like the way their inheritance was divided; and even far-out things like Teddy’s musings about his belief in demons and whether Gerry may be one, Irene likes having her brother there even as she makes it clear that her husband wants her brother to go.

That sets up a triangle of competing loyalties and creates opportunities for some Hitchcockian-style storytelling.  Is Teddy insane?  Is Gerry a menace? Will Irene realize that either possibility could endanger her?  

But having set her thriller in motion, Rebeck seems to have gotten bored by it and doesn’t even bother to come up with satisfying answers. By the play's end, I was left with even more questions than I had at its beginning.

That’s not the fault of the cast. Once again, Rebeck has attracted terrific actors. In fact, Tim Daly, who plays Teddy, reportedly asked Rebeck to write a play that would give him and his real-life sister Tyne the chance to appear onstage together for the first time (click here to read about that). 

Under Adrienne Campbell-Holt’s supportive direction, the Dalys are both charming in their roles, using the warm bonds of their own relationship to infuse the one between Teddy and Irene. 

They’re also having a ball playing against type with the usually dashing Tim schlumping around as Teddy and the usually brassy Tyne nestling into Irene’s meekness. And the veteran character actor John Procaccino chips in with a chilling performance as the domineering Gerry.

All three make the show watchable. But not even their collective talents can make Downstairs more than that because the playwright hasn’t given them enough to work with.  

Rebeck has complained in the past that critics are tough on her because she’s so prolific and because she's a woman (click here to read an interview with her). But maybe it's just because, as in this case, we think her work isn't good. 

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