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Theatre in Review: Downstate (Playwrights Horizons)

Tim Hopper, Francis Guinan. Photo: Joan Marcus

Playwright Bruce Norris has never shown much interest in taking prisoners, but even the most hair-raising of his works pales in comparison to Downstate. Taking direct and deadly aim at one of society's bedrock pieties, he builds his latest drama around the residents of a group home for sex offenders, a gambit certain to ride the audience's nerves to the breaking point. Then he surrounds this household of parolees with interlopers who, if anything, may be even less sympathetic. It's a blackly comic tour of humanity's fallen state, posing questions likely to keep you sleep-deprived. And yet, despite its grotesque subject and appalling cast of characters, it is savagely, uncompromisingly alive.

The men occupying the home include Fred, a sweet, unassuming retired piano teacher who, decades earlier, molested at least two male pupils. Dee, a former musical theatre performer, had a years-long relationship with an adolescent boy. Felix, a Latino immigrant, has been barred from trying to contact his daughter for reasons I need not explain. Gio, much younger and something of a hustler, claims that his conviction was a mistake due to simple confusion about his partner's age; working on a business degree online and given to quoting scripture, he enjoys informing his housemates about the hellfire awaiting them.

Evidence of the group's pariah status can be found in the broken window at stage left; as Dee notes, they are also occasionally pelted with rocks and eggs. "And death threats," he adds. "Lotta death threats." A new redistricting plan puts their local grocery store off limits, lest they come within twenty-five hundred feet of a nearby school. Each has his individual trials: Fred's mobility problems -- he uses a wheelchair -- result from an encounter with a vengeful stranger. Felix, previously subjected to chemical castration, is desperate, against all odds, to visit his dying sister in Mexico. Internal tensions are constantly boiling: Gio, whose empathy level is zero, has, in a moment of pique, taken a baseball bat to Dee's mint-condition poster for the Diana Ross film Lady Sings the Blues. And, of course, employment is difficult to find; as Dee notes, "The job market is somewhat limited for the elderly black homosexual ex-convict."

If these men suffer mightily, each of them is, to a greater or lesser degree, mired in denial about his offenses. But Norris has a couple of ferocious reality checks in store. For example, Ivy, a probation officer, confronts Felix about his visit to a public library, which is forbidden under the terms of his parole. (All of them are barred from the Internet.) Tough, calculating, and utterly intolerant of BS, she methodically grills the evasive, English-challenged Felix, catching in him a lie that will have profound repercussions. It's an unrelievedly tense cat-and-mouse exercise, with Ivy offering bits of empathy before announcing she had Felix cornered all along.

On the same day, Fred is visited by Andy, one of his victims, accompanied by his wife Em. Now a middle-aged financier, Andy thinks some accountability from Fred will ease the terrors that have left him psychologically paralyzed. The first confrontation fizzles thanks to a comic barrage of interruptions from the others. (When baring a lifetime of agony, the last thing you want to hear is a flushing toilet.) But Andy comes back for more, brandishing a "reconciliation contract" -- really a confession -- for Fred to read aloud and sign; this act triggers the play's blistering climax, which includes violence, a police intervention, and the ghastly revelation of one resident's fate.

Norris is the most Calvinist of playwrights -- obsessed with sin and possessed of little or no belief in salvation -- and Downstate is really about the search for redemption in situations where none can be found. Clearly, these men have (and continue to) put up with unacceptable suffering, but the damage they have inflicted is terrible and permanent, and remorse is thin on the ground. Gio insists that he is the victim of unjust laws, but his reckless, rule-breaking behavior leaves little doubt about the trouble ahead for him. Dee insists that his affair, at the age of thirty-seven, with a fourteen-year-old was a consensual romantic relationship -- but hang on for news of the youth's fate. (Dee's attempt at justifying his behavior with data about alleged sexual practices in New Guinea will win him few friends. "You don't even sound like you're ashamed," Ivy growls. "And if you're not ashamed? For fuck's sake at least try and pretend like you are.") Similarly, neither Fred nor Felix can accept responsibility for what they have done.

At the same time, Andy is equally pitiable and irritating, an aggrieved boy-man well-versed in therapeutic doubletalk but unable to let go of the past, continues to hammer Fred for signs of remorse long after it is clear the effort is futile. The long-suffering Em is consumed with the idea of punishment, an obsession that is eating her alive. And, as it happens, Ivy's brand of tough love can come with fatal consequences.

Director Pam McKinnon handles these brittle, brutally candid doings with understated skill, letting the rage in the room increase by degrees until something terrible must happen. K. Todd Freeman's Dee sets off most of the fireworks, whether unsentimentally recalling a childhood marked by physical abuse or baiting Andy about his membership in a "survivor's group." ("Well, I don't mean to quibble with your usage," he says, "but wouldn't a survivor be like if ya survived a plane crash?") Despite behavior that includes an unforgivable taunt about Andy's son, Dee cares tenderly for Francis Guinan's Fred, a gentle, soft-voiced duffer adrift in a of moral fog. Tim Hopper's Andy is pole-axed by guilt and grief, grasping for a sense of peace forever out of reach. Susanna Guzmán's Ivy presides over the interrogation of Eddie Torres' sweaty, anxious Felix with unimpeachable authority and, perhaps, a touch of sadism mixed with regret. "What I want is a Key Lime Martini from Outback Steakhouse," she says, contemplating the daily dirty work of managing her charges.

Filling out this lineup of lost souls are Sally Murphy as Em, bitterly informing one of the men, "I don't think we have the right kind of punishment for people who've done things like you've done;" Glenn Davis as Gio, shuttling between nasty putdowns of his roommates and sucking up to Andy for business advice; and Gabi Samels as Gio's Office Depot co-worker, whose unauthorized presence in the house helps precipitate the climactic disaster.

That house is fully realized in Todd Rosenthal's set design, a dumpy, desolate interior filled with cheap furniture and topped with a roof sporting a rusty satellite dish. Clint Ramos' drab, down-market costumes are also thoughtful character studies. Adam Silverman's lighting, carefully tracking each scene's time of day, and Carolyn Downing's sound, including selections from Chopin and Diana Ross, are both solid accomplishments.

The script has its occasional problems, in particular the too-obvious telegraphing of one major development, but I dare you to look to away from the stage. As distasteful as it sounds, Downstate is one of the most consistently gripping dramas in town just now; the audience at my performance received the action in rapt silence. Norris explodes a central illusion of contemporary American society, the idea that the practice of justice can repair the effects of evil. Fred, Dee, and the others have paid for their crimes, but incarceration (fifteen years, in Dee's case) hasn't made them better men, nor has it relieved their victims. Indeed, justice, as necessary as it is for an orderly society, is almost beside the point: For both abusers and victims, release from their torment must come from another source -- but where? -- David Barbour

(15 November 2022)

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