Review Roundup: Bruce Norris' DOWNSTATE Gets NY Premiere At Playwrights Horizons

Downstate marks the return of Bruce Norris to Playwrights Horizons following productions of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park.

By: Nov. 15, 2022
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Playwrights Horizons presents the New York premiere of Bruce Norris's Downstate, directed by Pam MacKinnon, celebrates its opening night tonight! Read the reviews!

This provocative work surrounds a registered address in Downstate Illinois, where four men convicted of sex crimes share a group home, living out their days post-incarceration. When a man shows up to confront his childhood abuser, it becomes hard to locate the line between justice and retribution.

Downstate sits audiences down to witness a single day within the home where Fred (Francis Guinan), Dee (K. Todd Freeman), Gio (Glenn Davis), and Felix (Eddie Torres) tightly cohabitate: four random lives thrust into shared space by only one chilling commonality. They have all been released back from their respective sentences into the permanent prison of an excommunicated existence. On this summer day, the elderly, disabled Fred meets a visitor who has likewise been trapped in a half-life: a prisoner of the trauma Fred inflicted on him as a child. Refusing cathartic responses and rushed moralism-and intricately problematizing both impulses towards righteous revenge and undue forgiveness-Downstate's environment, and its sprawling connotations, open into larger questions about the risks of a moment in discourse propelled by dogmatism on both sides of the political spectrum.

Downstate was commissioned and previously produced by Steppenwolf Theatre Company (where it made its world premiere in 2018) and The National Theatre. Later in 2018, The New York Times named the production in its list of the year's best theater. Five actors from the original company remain in this production: Glenn Davis (Gio), K. Todd Freeman (Dee), Francis Guinan (Fred), Tim Hopper (Andy), and Eddie Torres (Felix). Newly cast performers include Susanna Guzmán (Ivy), Sally Murphy (Em), and Gabi Samels (Effie).

The Downstate creative team includes Todd Rosenthal (Set Designer), Clint Ramos (Costume Designer), Adam Silverman (Lighting Designer), Carolyn Downing (Sound Designer), TKTK (Stage Manager), and Thomas Dieter (Assistant Stage Manager).

Downstate marks the return of Bruce Norris to Playwrights Horizons following productions of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park, as well as The Qualms and The Pain and the Itch.

Laura Collins-Hughes, The New York Times: Pam MacKinnon's impeccably acted production that opened Tuesday at Playwrights Horizons, this deep, dark tragicomedy pokes and prods at our compassion, checks the pulse on our sense of justice, taps our reflex response to charm. And charm, in this play, is both a tool of the predators' trade and a survival skill.

Jackson McHenry, Vulture: Downstate comes to New York after acclaimed runs in Chicago at Steppenwolf and at The National Theatre, and the experience shows in its disarming, talky smoothness. Pam MacKinnon, directing, keeps almost all the conversations running with uptempo precision, adding small details that unsettle you along the way - there's a package of Nutter Butters that takes on the significance of a cursed idol. Hopper, Guinan, Freeman, Davis, and Torres are back from previous productions, and are at all at ease in the way they can angle their characters one way to make you feel sympathy and another toward revulsion and dread. Guzmán, meanwhile, brings an unmerciful directness to Ivy, a sense that the only way she can do this job is to be friendly and ruthless. As Dee, who's very fond of his DVD collection of classic movies, Freeman gives an exceptional performance that's both pathetic and venomous - like a caged snake.

David Finkle, New York Stage Review: Notably, the actors at work in Norris' hardly convivial roles are uniformly formidable, and Pam MacKinnon directs them with authority. Most are Steppenwolf members, who, whenever they transfer to New York City, prove yet again how powerful the Chicago acting roster is. (Not least on that list is Steppenwolf artistic director Davis.) Freeman and Murphy were here earlier this year in the Steppenwolf transfer of Tracy Letts' The Minutes.

Robert Hofler, The Wrap: The showier aspects of "Downstate" - the humorous interruptions that plague Andy's initial confrontation with Fred or the complaints of foul odors that run throughout Act 2 - are rendered less obvious through Pam Mackinnon's direction. Mackinnon is the kind of self-effacing director who removes all signs of her own work, except for the final result: great performances in an equally great play.

Tim Teeman, The Daily Beast: The creepiest, most skin-crawling villain on the New York City stage right now can be found at Playwrights Horizons (to December 11) in what is the most daring, confronting, disturbing, and flawlessly executed production of the season so far.

Brian Scott Lipton, Cititour: So, I'll start by admitting your reaction to "Downstate," which has finally arrived at Playwrights Horizons four years after its debut at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, may differ from mine - although I think no one can argue that what's on stage is brilliantly acted by an eight-person ensemble and scrupulously directed by Pam McKinnon.

Jonathan Mandell, New York Theater: Playwright Bruce Norris manages to find moments of comedy in this play about four men, formerly imprisoned for sex crimes against minors, who live in a group home not far from Chicago, in downstate Illinois. It's part of his larger project, aided by a superb cast and fine direction by Pam MacKinnon, to change the audience's perspective about people viewed universally as repugnant.

Adam Feldman, Time Out New York: Norris takes his comedy black, as he has shown in such previous plays as Clybourne Park and The Low Road, and here it is often scalding. His aim is wide: He lays bare the blind spots and self-deceptions of the house residents even he also pokes at the penal system and, most provocatively, at the rage that can bubble just beneath a set of liberal pieties. Ted Cruz's theatrics notwithstanding, Downstate is in no way a paean to pedophilia, but it prompts us to examine our vengeance, and that's a lot to ask. (On the night I saw it, at least four people walked out in the first act.) It is touching in ways that make us uncomfortable to be touched-and that, in the theater, is a shattering gift. Brace yourself, and see it.

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