Ostensibly about domestic abuse, the evidence is all offstage and we must surmise this from the defeated condition of the heroine Irene played by Ms. Daly. Her husband Gerry (John Procaccino) is involved in some shocking, nefarious business revealed to the characters on stage but never revealed to the audience, nor is the confidential project her brother Teddy (Mr. Daly) claims to be working on which will make his fortune. As such, the thrills are all a matter of guesswork, rather than actual events.
The first half of the play is a not-so-traditional dysfunctional family drama. Running away from something or simply needing a place to crash, Teddy has come to visit his older sister Irene, married to the mysteriously threatening Gerry. While Irene likes cooking and baking for her brother (now living for several days downstairs in her basement without coming upstairs for meals) who she has obviously not seen for quite a while, she does not approve of what seems his crazy talk of having been poisoned at his office and of her husband spending Teddy and Irene’s inheritance on the house. However, Irene reports that the unseen Gerry does not want Teddy to continue staying in his basement as an unpaid guest.
It is not until halfway through the play that Gerry shows up, a sinister presence that is as menacing as he is aggressive, and the temperature begins to heat up. However, Teddy has discovered something sinister on Gerry’s computer in the basement, the one that Gerry has convinced Irene doesn’t work. When Teddy is forced to leave – though he seems to have nowhere to go – Irene decides to take a look for herself. As we are told so little about the characters (like what does Gerry do for a living) and so little happens, the play seems very thin where it should be dense with clues and details.
Domestic abuse seems to be one of the hot topics for plays and movies these days although here it is not really dramatized, but must be taken on faith. However, such pieces of information that Gerry has not let Irene work since they have been married may be no more than old-fashioned 1950’s ideas for the prefect wife rather than anything sinister. His allowing her no spending money may also be explained by her bad accounting without being a situation of spousal abuse. This is all complicated by Teddy’s slim hold on reality so that we never really know of what he says is true and what isn’t.
Director Adrienne Campbell-Holt who also staged Rebeck’s What We’re Up Against at WP Theater last season gets a good deal out of her actors who make their roles seem more full-bodied than they actually are on paper. Ms. Daly who usually plays very strong women on stage (Maria Callas, Rose Hovick, Madama Arkadina) has a field day as the brow-beaten, middle-aged wife who lives in fear of her husband but has grown used to the situation, though it is more in her hesitant delivery than in her lines. As Teddy, Mr. Daly is both fragile and delusional, but at the same time is often entirely lucid. Mr. Procaccino may be playing his most evil character to date and you can feel the audience get quiet each time he enters, a menacing figure just from his posture and presence even before he delivers any pointed remarks.
Narelle Sissons’ unfinished basement setting is extremely realistic but offers very little ambiance, again something left up to the audience’s imagination. The costumes by Sarah Laux are much more successful in aiding the story, with Ms. Daly’s Irene in dowdy outfits that suggest she has had no spending money for years, and Mr. Daly’s Teddy in the sort of shabby clothes that suggests he may even have been homeless for a while. Mr. Procaccino’s Gerry wears the kind of casual sportswear that suggests he doesn’t care what he looks like when he is home. Michael Giannitti’s lighting is serviceable without being memorable or atmospheric. However, periodically M.L Dogg’s sound design makes one’s hair stand on end.
From so accomplished a playwright as Theresa Rebeck, Downstairs is a major disappointment but then again the thriller is its own special genre, not for every writer. While it is a treat to see Tyne Daly and Tim Daly working together for the first time, the material does not really show what they are capable of doing. Ironically it is John Procaccino who steals the show in the play’s one overtly strong role. Director Adrienne Campbell-Holt offers a realistic showcase without seeming to know how to turn up the temperature soon enough.
Downstairs (through December 22, 2018)
Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, west of Seventh Ave. So., in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.primarystages.org
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes with no intermission