There is no rewind button in live performance, and it might be that my ears deceived me. But I could almost swear that, as Tyne Daly made her entrance in Theresa Rebeck’s chilling new domestic thriller “Downstairs” the other night at the Cherry Lane Theater, she called her brother Tim’s character Timmy.
He’s Teddy, actually, but she addressed him as Timmy once later in the show, too — a charming slip in a fine performance, and an easy one to make, given that the Dalys are playing siblings.
Ms. Rebeck wrote “Downstairs” with them in mind, and for the first half it comes across as a comfortably uncomfortable dysfunctional-family drama about the psychologically fragile Teddy and his protective older sister, Irene, who is letting him stay on the couch in her unfinished basement.
From the play’s wordless opening scene in this Primary Stages production, Teddy is comically, endearingly O.K. with his subterranean surroundings, rooting around amid rusty tools for a bowl for his cereal. (The grimy set is by Narelle Sissons.)
Irene, who pops down to visit, likes having him there. It gives her someone to talk with, to cook and bake for, even if he rants sometimes in ways she finds upsetting — about the guy at his office who he’s sure has been poisoning him or the money their mother left to Irene, which she and her controlling husband, Gerry (John Procaccino), used to buy their house.
“You want to act this crazy, go act this crazy somewhere else,” she tells her rumpled brother. “I am not going to allow you to act this crazy in my basement.”
Teddy does have trouble staying tethered to reality, but he’s a smart and curious guy who loves Irene even as he uses her, and to his credit he’s too ingenuous to be a decent liar. Interspersed with his apparent delusions are observations of the sharpest lucidity: about his isolated sister, how the world really works and the dangers that she has elected not to see. Gerry’s malevolence, for instance.
Ms. Daly’s Irene is a timid, beaten-down woman with a nervous smile and a Judy Garland flutter to her voice. So obedient to Gerry that she doesn’t work because he doesn’t want her to, she is the sort of person whose kindness and eagerness to please make her credulous, and far too tolerant of her husband’s cruelty.
“So you’ve been living with a demon for, what, 30 years or something?” Teddy says, and it’s both disquieting and funny that he means demon literally.
Directed with striking clarity and command by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, “Downstairs” is a well-constructed play of whipsaw moods that have much to do with Teddy’s instability — a restless volatility that Mr. Daly struggles to embody in a performance that is the production’s most amusing yet least convincing. But this is ultimately a kind of horror story, and in its second half we understand that the danger has been lurking in the house all along.
What Ms. Rebeck is exploring here is the struggle between good and evil, and the tendency of decent people with honorable intentions to doubt their own perceptions when what they perceive is too sinister to seem plausible.
“Downstairs” is about the realization that horrific actions that might have seemed solely the province of scary movies, or paranoid delusions, can be perpetrated by people in your life — perhaps against you and the ones you love. So it goes for Irene, anyway.
Ms. Rebeck and Ms. Campbell-Holt are politically minded artists, and there is a larger social point in all this. It’s not just about domestic abuse (though it is about that) or looking after the most vulnerable among us (though it’s about that, too). It’s about shaking off willful naïveté and confronting menace instead of allowing it to determine how we live.
If that sounds heavy-handed, it’s actually quite entertaining, all the more so when Gerry makes his entrance halfway through the intermissionless performance. A gray-haired suburban thug, he descends into the basement, and the play instantly thrums with tension, becoming the kind of show where it seemed perfectly natural that the young woman next to me started whispering urgent instructions to the characters, as if she were watching them on T.V.
Mr. Procaccino’s Gerry is a magnificent villain — belligerent, dangerous and so habitually, casually vicious that he chews on a nail as he gives Irene a devastating, off-the-cuff list of reasons he married her. When one of them is “You’re pretty,” it’s a little bit heartbreaking to see her blatant need as she asks, “You think I’m pretty?”
“Pretty enough,” he says.
But by then she has already realized something crucial about the ties that bind us to one another. Some deserve strengthening. Others must be severed for dear life.
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