by JK Clarke
It’s been a good autumn for playwright Theresa Rebeck. Her thoughtful examination of famed turn-of-the-century actor Sarah Bernhardt’s groundbreaking performance as Hamlet (Bernhardt/Hamlet) opened on Broadway in September to critical acclaim; and her newest play, Downstairs, starring one of theaters most endearing sibling duos, just opened Off Broadway at The Cherry Lane Theatre (Primary Stages). Deftly directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, Downstairs is a harrowing story of a brother and sister coping with both severe mental illness and a menacing bully.
Rebeck’s two plays this fall have been both augmented and blessed with top notch actors, helping to bring them to a higher level than they might otherwise have achieved. Both the remarkable Janet McTeer and the unassuming Dylan Baker bumped Bernhardt/Hamlet’s sometimes dragging script. And in Downstairs, real life siblings Tyne and Tim Daly add tangible pathos to a brother and sister, Irene and Teddy, who are beset by an furious tormenter. Alarmingly, the antagonist is Irene’s husband Gerry (John Procaccino), who has apparently married her only to be able to take advantage of her inheritance and her milquetoast personality. Like Edith Bunker (of TV’s “All in the Family”) she makes excuses for her husband’s atrocious personality, rages and general disagreeableness. All she wants is peace. Which is understandable, considering that she grew up in a dysfunctional household with a severely alcoholic, imbalanced mother and an absentee father.
Irene’s brother Teddy seems to have inherited the worst of his family’s problems. He’s demonstrably mentally ill (as was, most likely, his mother), suffering from delusions and paranoia. Having taken shelter in his sister’s basement, at her invitation, he seems to be getting on solid footing. But the ultra-controlling Gerry doesn’t want him there. He apparently has a life and a lifestyle he doesn’t want interrupted or uncovered. He’s so independent that he doesn’t even eat Irene’s (apparently delicious) cooking, opting instead for fast food; and he comes and goes in an air of mystery that Irene dares not question, lest she provoke his explosive rage. Shortly after Teddy’s arrival, Gerry insists he leave, going so far as to pack his belongings into a garbage bag and threatening physical harm if Teddy doesn’t depart immediately.
An old personal computer that sits in the basement like Chekov’s gun (it is said repeatedly that it doesn’t work) ultimately goes off. When it does, Gerry comes to discover that mental illness doesn’t necessarily equate to stupidity. But it is ultimately Irene’s sincere and genuine love for her brother that allows Teddy to rise to the occasion, and the Dalys play their parts perfectly.
While Downstairs shows a good deal of promise, and is beautifully laid out on Narelle Sissons’ basement set, Rebeck’s script is severely undercut by some very obvious problems that could have been resolved had she consulted with at least one competent psychologist. Gerry’s primary personality disorder, that of a controlling, violent and narcissistic brute, wouldn’t co-exist with a psychological profile that is suggested at the end of the play. The initial implication is that he’s controlling and angry, but then it’s revealed he may also be a scheming, diagnosable sociopath. Gerry’s prior dialog and these supposed diagnoses would not co-exist in a personality that truly has these disorders. If he possessed all the specific pathologies that the author suggests he has, none of it would manifest in the individual we see on stage. This shortsightedness renders the main thrust of the play almost moot and takes the power away from some very strong performances.
Downstairs is a wonderfully acted (Tyne Daly is truly magnificent, displaying her remarkable range), entertaining play with suspenseful plot twists, that would be a lot more impactful and enjoyable if one didn’t have to suspend so much disbelief.
Downstairs. Through December 22 at the Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street, Greenwich Village, NYC). One hour, 45 minutes, no intermission. www.cherrylanetheatre.org
Photos: James Leynse