Playwrights Horizons Scores Big with Norris’s Complicated “Downstate”

Francis Guinan, Glenn Davis, Susanna Guzmán, Eddie Torres, and K. Todd Freeman in Bruce Norris’s Downstate at Playwrights Horizons. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The Off-Broadway Theatre Review: PH’s Downstate

By Ross

Ready? Take your time.” And it’s off to the uncomfortable races with Steppenwolf‘s brilliant transfer of Bruce Norris’ Downstate, a new complex and challenging piece of theatre, co-produced by The National Theatre, that pushes forward a space that will leave many squirming with discomfort in their seats. The play, as directed strongly by Pam MacKinnon (PH’s Log Cabin), ventures strongly up and into our collective faces, digging deep inside this controversial and dynamically real argument about punishment and survival in a morally ambiguous dimension. Authentically moving and utterly disturbing, the play begins with a victim coming forward to confront his past and the perpetrator of sexual abuse he experienced from his piano teacher when he was a young child, and from there, it spins its web inside and out of this complicated group home structure.

The scene and the play roll out with an awkward level of anger and defiance, matched and returned with simpleton kindness and compassion in a group home in downstate Illinois, that is filled to overflowing with confined and convicted child-abusing men. Playwright Bruce Norris (Claybourne Park; A Parallelogram) doesn’t shy away, expertly filling the rooms with real individuals that uniquely contrast and redefine their situations, each tormented in their own way and manner. But the energy is ignited by the troubled Andy, played valiantly by Tim Hopper (Primary Stages’ Him) who has come to the house with his wife, Em, played tensely by Sally Murphy (Broadway’s Linda Vista) in order to get a more fleshed-out retributive confession from the wheelchair-bound Fred, played with penitent perfection by Francis Guinan (Steppenwolf/Broadway’s August: Osage County). This is all to help with his recovery. We feel for his pain and his situation. It’s a harrowing memory-triggered journey, listening to the two interact, filling the theatrical air with pain and frustration in a complicated mix of empathy and remorse. It’s a moment not for the faint of heart or head, but that is where the intelligence of this play resides.

Francis Guinan, Sally Murphy, and Tim Hopper in Bruce Norris’s Downstate at Playwrights Horizons. Photo by Joan Marcus.

But the conflict really lies in the powerful construction of Fred’s fellow inmate, Dee, played to the stellar skies by K. Todd Freeman (Broadway’s The Minutes) who shows little patience with the angry Andy. He also has little remorse for the problematic long-term relationship he had with a young boy he was completely in ‘love’ with, who was, quite (un)naturally, one of the Lost Boys in a touring production of “Peter Pan” that Dee was involved with. He proclaims it with an almost proud stance, sharing the idea of this love with those in the room. But nothing in this play lies in a straightforward manner. “He wasn’t a young man, he was a 14-year-old boy, “ Dee is told from a place of agitated anger, but it doesn’t appear to register, at least not yet. Dee’s anger lives strong, eating away at his insides at his controlled position mirrors with distortion the aggressive hetero Gio, powerfully portrayed with gusto by Glenn Davis (Steppenwolf’s The Christians). Gio lives out his timed restricted days in a state of denial, guilty of a sexual offense with an underage teenage girl but shows more defiance than guilt. Is that a double standard of offensiveness or a complacent reality? Don’t ask his new friend, the fascinatingly created coworker, Effie, played most dynamically by Gabie Samels (Netflix’s “The Half of It“). You might get a more thoughtful answer than you first imagine.

Susanna Guzmán and Eddie Torres in Bruce Norris’s Downstate at Playwrights Horizons. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Filling out the unhappy foursome is Felix, played by the talented Eddie Torres (director/Old Globe’s Familiar) who struggles almost innocently inside the idea that his love for his young daughter was something inappropriate, dangerous, and wrong. His scene with the parole officer, authentically played to exhausted perfection by Susanna Guzmán (Abingdon Theatre’s Foggy Bottom) paints in detail the tangled webs of deceit and pain that live inside the pedophile and the person. Both on the inside, and out.

It’s a complex scenario, overflowing with compassion and conflict, asking many difficult questions about the never-ending punishment within the prison-like world of sex offenders in America who have served their time but are basically never released. “It’s my house, and I live here“, but is there ownership? Yet in that house, designed impeccably by Todd Rosenthal (Broadway’s Straight White Men), with costuming by Clint Ramos (PH’s Familiar), lighting by Adam Silverman (Broadway’s The Glass Menagerie), and sound by Carolyn Downing (Broadway’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses), the cast soars even while wearing the required ankle bracelets that keep them tied down. The quagmire isn’t easily explained or understood, and redemption doesn’t present itself without complications, leaving us all contemplating an abstract and emotional dilemma with no easy answer. Downstate lays it out before us, showcasing the superbly presented complexities surrounding those lost in the sex offender swamp of a broken punitive system. It ain’t an easy play to watch, but it’s a powerful piece to sit all the way through and find something inside akin to compassion.

Gabi Samels, K. Todd Freeman, Francis Guinan (on the ground), Tim Hopper, and Glenn Davis in Bruce Norris’s Downstate at Playwrights Horizons. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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