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Theatre Review by Marc Miller - November 15, 2022

K. Todd Freeman, Francis Guinan, Glenn Davis,
Susanna Guzmán, and Eddie Torres

Photo by Joan Marcus
A tough one, this. Bruce Norris's Downstate, now playing at Playwrights Horizons, plunks us down into a repellent environment, one we'd never choose to find ourselves in, and shakes our assumptions and challenges our prejudices for two and a half hours, all the while keeping us largely riveted. It feels honest, it zips by, and it's something we haven't had a lot of lately: a well-made play.

By well-made play I mean presented without frills, building plot and character methodically and logically, and heating up to a boiling climax that surprises us, yet feels inevitable in retrospect. On Todd Rosenthal's dowdy set–a living room, set in the present, but the moldy sofa, DVD rack, and well-worn Yamaha keyboard suggest decades past–a confrontation is afoot. Andy (Tim Hopper), a successful but not altogether stable forty-something Chicago financial planner, aided by his wife Em (Sally Murphy, looking marvelous–can Carousel really be 28 years ago?), is reading an uncomfortable declaration to elderly, wheelchair-bound Fred (Francis Guinan) about a revenge fantasy Andy has harbored about him.

Here's the thing: Many years ago, Fred sexually abused the adolescent Andy, among other boys, leading to an ugly trial, Fred's conviction, and his eventual placement here, in this downstate (southern Illinois; we don't know where, and it doesn't matter) home for convicted sex offenders. Fred, who's as gentle and polite as Mister Rogers, shares the facility with fast-talking, ambitious Gio (Glenn Davis); voluble, sarcastic Dee (K. Todd Freeman), who maintained a years-long relationship with a teenage boy while both were touring in Peter Pan; and bilingual, despairing Felix (Eddie Torres), who's quiet and passive until he's given a chance to vent, and then, watch out. The quartet of miscreants are variously into music, old movies, God, and get-rich-quick schemes, and are monitored by Ivy (Susanna Guzmán), their practical, overworked probation officer.

How do we feel about these guys? We're appalled, obviously, yet we're also drawn into their humanity (they do have some; watch how tenderly Dee cares for the debilitated Fred), their conflicts, the myriad of public restrictions and social humiliations they must endure. Andy, meanwhile, having traveled downstate to wrest a belated personal confession out of Fred, and overprotective of his own son, is struggling to maintain his composure. Are his repeated, increasingly bitter allegations about how Fred ruined his life starting to sound–dare I say it–excessive?

Sally Murphy and Tim Hopper
Photo by Joan Marcus
It's a complicated moral universe, and how surely Norris navigates it, giving every side a voice and letting us understand their viewpoint, even when, as often happens, we don't agree with it. Fred, played by Guinan with an almost childlike vulnerability and innocence, though Fred's clearly not innocent, knows he did wrong, yet seems to stop one station short of accepting full responsibility for his misdeeds. Gio, Dee, and Felix all see themselves as victims, to an extent: As Fred says, "We have a sickness." Dee has an eloquent speech about how sentences for his kind of crime, however morally justified, are disproportionate to those for other crimes. Em, understandably defensive of her husband but also the embodiment of white privilege, wishes all of them the worst possible afterlives, if such there be, "because I don't think we have the right kind of punishment for people who've done things like you've done in this life." In context, it sounds positively brutal.

Just peruse the cast list for a list of actors worthy of special praise, starting with Hopper, always conveying the rage beneath Andy's barely controlled calm. Davis's Gio exudes unjustified fast-talking hustler confidence, and Guzmán's Ivy, warily trying to balance a certain sympathy for her charges with a well-merited healthy skepticism for anything they say, is every put-upon civil servant you've ever met. Gabi Samels, as Effie, a clueless Gen Z colleague of Gio's (he works at a Staples) stopping by for a pizza and a vape, is just the sort of shallow, opportunistic co-worker you'd expect Gio to befriend.

The play isn't perfect: There's a late surprise about Felix that won't be much of a surprise if you've been following carefully, and Gio has a flippant final speech which, given the direness of his circumstances at that moment, doesn't ring true. But almost everything else does, and surely much of that has to do with Pam MacKinnon's carefully calibrated direction, which varies the rhythms, moods, and vocal decibels of this sorry place, where the neighbors throw eggs and rocks and no one's allowed a drink or a cellphone. When conversations overlap and we can't hear every word, it's fine, it's about establishing a battleground of short tempers and longstanding conflicts. And when something violent happens late in the game, first it's shocking and then it's, well, of course.

Beyond showing this bunch for the warped, deceitful lot they often are, and the devastating effects their actions can have on their victims, Norris doesn't really take sides. He humanizes these transgressors to the extent they can be, and he suggests that, when they complain about how society isn't even giving them a chance to reform or make something of themselves, maybe they have a point. But Downstate isn't a political treatise. It's a character study, with social comment artfully woven in. And it's graced with one of the most skillful ensembles you've seen in many a season.

Through December 11, 2022
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater
416 West 42nd Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: