BWW Review: DOWNSTAIRS Isn't the Play You'd Expect at City Theatre
I write two types of reviews on this site: long, rambling, analytical reviews stuffed with digression and allusion and anything I feel like putting in, and terse, brief reviews that hold back any possible spoiler for plot-and-surprise-heavy shows.
This is the second kind. Please, if you know what's good for you, you'll go see Downstairs.
Did that sound like a threat? No, no, it wasn't a threat. I wouldn't threaten you. Have I ever threatened you? You're crazy for thinking I would threaten you. Absolutely crazy. Shame on you.
If you're feeling a little gaslit after that paragraph, good. You're on the right track. Not to spoil too much, but Theresa Rebeck's dramedy, carefully and meticulously directed into a tight but shaggy-seeming two hours by Marc Masterson, is all about knowing who to trust and who not to trust, remembering things different ways, questioning one's sanity and the sanity of others. Irene (Helena Ruoti), who is nervous and a bit high-strung and not in the world's best marriage, has invited her middle-aged brother Teddy (Martin Giles) to crash in her basement for a few days. Teddy is... let's just call him special. My diagnostic spider-sense (part of my day job) kept trying to pin him down- autism spectrum? OCD? paranoid schizophrenia?- but it doesn't matter. Teddy is just not functioning at his peak capacity, and he needs a safe, stable place to be. Evidently this runs in the family to some extent, and he and Irene quickly bond over shared childhood memories. But those memories don't always line up- details vary, impressions are skewed, and soon they are both second-guessing each other. The visit stretches on, annoying and then upsetting Irene's husband Gerry (John Shepard). This is when things get really weird.
Helena Ruoti and Martin Giles give tour de force performances- as Irene, Ruoti's rabbity, anxious energy starts to look like it could be something more, or something worse, when placed against Giles's sweet but fractured portrayal of Teddy. Having recently seen Mr. Giles in The Woman in Black as an aging, somewhat prissy upper-class English gentleman, the two characters and their lived experiences could not be more distinct. His slow but perceptible descent into irreversible mental decline over the course of the evening is the second scariest part of the show, after the combined sound design by Steve Shapiro and light design by Brian Lilienthal. If Rebeck is writing a dramedy with genre elements, Marc Masterson has staged it as an A24-style slow-burn horror, and Shapiro and Lilienthal's scenic transitions have all the unspoken tension and menace of Hereditary or It Comes at Night.
Last, but not least, is John Shepard, who comes into the play at a little past the halfway point. Teddy and Irene may be fragile vases prone to cracks, but Shepard, as Gerry, gives us a bull in a china shop. All menace, on both a physical and spoken level, the entire tone of the piece shifts when he makes his entrance. There's very little subtlety in Shepard's performance, but none is written in; Gerry is cold, merciless reality without any of the shades of gray or comfortable evasiveness of the other two characters. To Shepard's credit, he embraces the bluntness of the character as a positive attribute, and does not try to out-Herod Herod by reaching for the levels of depth and nuance attributed to the other two characters. That is not his purpose. His purpose is to- well, you're going to have to see the play.
Leaving the theatre, audiences were abuzz, discussing some of the ending's twists and turns and their meaning. This is a new play, and people are talking about it. Do you know how rare it is? City Theatre's mission of producing the new cream of the playwriting world every year is a blessing on our city, and may it never be rescinded.