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Theatre in Review: Downstairs (Cherry Lane Theatre)

Tyne Daly, Tim Daly. Photo James Leynse.

Primary Stages gets into the star-vehicle business with Downstairs, which Theresa Rebeck wrote for siblings Tim and Tyne Daly. In addition to being a star showcase, it's an old-school exercise in psychological suspense, the sort of thing you might have found on Broadway in the 1963-64 season. The good news is that their roles fit the Dalys perfectly; what's surprising is that the plot doesn't really start to boil until John Procaccino, the third member of the company, enters, casting a dark, menacing shadow and upping the stakes to the life-or-death level.

Tim Daly is Teddy, who is much too old to be holed up in his sister's unfinished basement, sleeping on a dilapidated couch and subsisting on a diet of dry breakfast cereal. How he got to this unpretty pass is never made clear, but there's clearly something off about him. When confronted by Irene, who is older and married and worried about this problem that she has inherited, he insists that a long-term project he has been working on is "really on all cylinders, finally, and it would be just the wrong thing to walk away from it." Responding to Irene's questions, he mutters, "Talking about it in the specific isn't going to help you understand it. You just have to trust me. It's pretty big."

If such vague assertions aren't discomfiting enough, Teddy later tells Irene that he is the victim of poisoning, the result of a long-running plot instituted by an office colleague. (His career is left mysteriously undefined.) It has unfolded across fifteen years, he insists, reaching a point where even to touch him is to risk toxicity. Then again, he says, "I didn't want to quit. I liked that job and generally I was considered to be a really good employee. But," he adds, "my heart was infected."

By now, you'd think Irene would be calling her local asylum, or at least the police. But Tim Daly delivers all of this nonsense, and more, with conviction and considerable nuance; see the play of emotions across his face -- doubt, fear, and sheer uncertainty -- as he boasts about his mysterious master plan; notice the way his eyes never quite meet his sister's as he spins his tale of crime in the workplace. For all his apparent fecklessness, consider the sudden, sharp bursts of fury when the conversation comes around to the topic of the maternal inheritance that was denied him, or the wild-eyed look that he gets when he asserts that Gerry, Irene's husband, is a case of demonic possession. Teddy is shifty, gentle, good-hearted, and ever-so-faintly dangerous, all at once, and the actor -- his hair askew, his clothing rumpled, his gaze forever lost in thought -- captures his ever-shifting emotional state with remarkable precision while simultaneously preserving his essential mystery.

By any standard, Teddy is a handful, and even a loving relative would be only too happy to show him the door; in addition, however, Irene is clearly cowed by the so-far-unseen Gerry. Dressed in a series of flowery old-lady dresses seemingly pulled from her grandmother's closet, her hair cut unflatteringly to look like a tea cosy resting on her head, Irene is the mousiest of hausfraus, sitting on a powder keg of suppressed panic, smiling only to put a little sugar-coating on the social lies by which she lives. Discussing her marriage, she says, unhelpfully, "It's just hard, when you're, too, you know" -- then she stops, lost in the shoals of inarticulateness. ("Okay, that sentence had no verb," Teddy replies, irritated.) Even when a rush of candor breaks through her falsely serene fa├žade and she admits to being married to "a horrible man," she doesn't seem angry so much as frightened and adrift. And when Teddy starts pressing her for money, her desperation shows. Tyne Daly plausibly brings to life this longtime people-pleaser, signaling her rising alarm that she has stumbled into a situation where neither Teddy nor Gerry can be made happy -- leaving her in big trouble no matter what she does.

For all the perceptiveness with which Rebeck has fashioned this woebegone pair, meticulously tailoring them to the talents of the Dalys, she lades the first half of Downstairs with far too much dramatic fiddling around. The first several minutes are taken up with a lengthy sequence, bereft of dialogue, filled with bits of business showing Teddy going about his morning ablutions. It is neither amusing nor illuminating, and one wishes the director, Adrienne Campbell-Holt, had found a way to trim it back. The playwright takes her time dropping hints about -- among other things -- Teddy and Irene's troubled past, Irene's obviously abusive marriage, and Teddy's disconnect from reality, all of which could have been done in half the time; several passages, detailing Irene's fantasies about office work, her weird dislike of the post office, and her distaste for the members of her church, are allowed to ramble on without adding much of anything to the basic situation.

Something finally happens when Procaccino enters as Gerry, a most memorable bully. Tall, his posture slightly angled, he looks down like a predatory stork at both Teddy and Irene, patting a hand on his paunch and coldly informing each of them that his word is law -- and if the law is broken, he can't be responsible for the consequences. "Are you a homo?" he asks Teddy, rattling him, before demanding that he pack up and go. Digging up a few unsavory facts about Teddy's past, he adds, "So now, as it turns out, you're both crazy and a criminal." Moving in for the psychological kill, he makes clear that Teddy is nobody, beneath his consideration, adding, "There are so many people out there and no one cares. There's only five or six people on planet Earth anyone cares about, everyone else is, like, Chinese. There are billions of them and they all look alike." Without resorting to overacting, Procaccino embodies the sinister, and Teddy seems to shrivel up in the face of his aggression.

Gerry's one-on-one encounter with Irene packs even more tension. At Teddy's behest, she turns on Gerry's supposedly broken computer and what she finds there causes an eloquent silent scream, scattering, in a single stroke, all the lies she has told herself about her marriage. When Gerry enters, the simple act of turning on the overhead fluorescent lights produces a gasp from the audience. The ensuing confrontation bristles with submerged violence, not least because of the monkey wrench around which Irene has her fingers wrapped: Among the ugly truths up for discussion is the fate of the two stray dogs that Irene adopted, both of which disappeared without a trace. Gerry's clinical composure as he lays out the facts is positively chilling.

Poised halfway between an enigmatic Pinterian power struggle and a conventional thriller, Downstairs is not without its plot holes -- which is unsurprising, since Rebeck's strengths have always have characterization and snappy dialogue, not plotting and structure. The world of the characters is oddly hermetic and sometimes difficult to parse. How did Teddy come to such a desperate pass? Why does Irene not challenge his bizarre fancies more vigorously? What exactly did she find on that computer? If some plot points dangle preciously, the climax features a couple of too-neatly arranged developments -- not least a surprise doorbell ring -- borrowed from the popular melodramas of another era.

Nevertheless, if you enjoy the Dalys at their considerable best -- and you don't mind an oversupply of exposition -- Downstairs packs some extremely potent thrills. Campbell-Holt has a real knack for slow-burning scenes of menace -- this is a production in which the smallest gesture can leave you nervously alert, waiting for something awful to happen -- and she has also overseen a generally effective design package. Narelle Sissons' basement set is gritty enough that you can feel the grime, and Michael Giannitti adds to the intentionally dispiriting effect with anemic rays of sunlight seeping in through the single window. If Sarah Laux's costumes trend, in Irene's case, a little toward caricature -- the same is true of Leah Loukas' wig design -- there is something oddly touching about the green cloth coat Irene clings to so tenaciously, and the men are dressed effectively. The sound design, by M. L. Dogg, fills the scene changes with attractive, if strangely Asiatic, music; sound effects, including footfalls and a bitter argument from upstairs, add to the eerie atmosphere.

And there is something cunning in the way Irene is poised between a sadistic husband and a brother with obvious mental problems, both of whom hate each other. It's an intensely volatile situation -- a kind of feminist fable, really, in which Irene learns that neither man can be relied upon -- and when Rebeck finally detonates it, all three cast members combine to provide the necessary explosive chemistry. In its best moments, Downstairs functions the way a vehicle is meant to: Stars and roles meet with near-perfect synchronicity. -- David Barbour

(30 November 2018)

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