REVIEWS: Danger In The Construction Zone – Theresa Rebeck’s DOWNSTAIRS Is Chilling, Thoughtful

Published on October 7, 2016 by   ·   No Comments

Usually I make pretty light of spoiler alerts (how do you write a review without giving away information about the show? How do you anticipate what any one person might consider a spoiler?) but in this case I’m talking about a show that hasn’t been produced and the script has never been published.  I’m going to give a pretty thorough description of the major plot points; that section of the review will be in red text.  The analysis that follows will be in black, and while it will still reference major plot points it won’t be as detailed.  Knowing this, read at your own risk. XOXO – Miss Jaye

Downstairs 01Seattle’s ACT Theatre is one of my favorite places to go whenever I’m in Seattle, and on this latest trip I discovered a series that makes me appreciate the venue even more: the Construction Zone, a series of staged readings presented in collaboration with Theatre 22 that present new, previously unproduced works by playwrights with talkbacks and discussions afterward (often with the playwright in attendance); once the series is over, one of the plays is then selected for a full production the following season.  I was able to attend one of these readings for Theresa Rebeck‘s play, Downstairs, about a brother and sister with a family history of mental problems, the sister’s sinister husband, and secrets that are unearthed when the brother comes to stay in the basement.

First, let’s run down the plot.  This is no easy task; Rebeck throws in lots of pieces of informational hooks to keep you guessing which way the story might be progressing and how the pieces will all eventually fit together.  Teddy has been staying in the basement of Irene’s house, a house that Teddy claims she bought with “the money.”  It seems that when their mother died, she left Irene in charge of the money rather than simply splitting it between them, and Teddy feels that he was cheated.  As we learn more about their mother, she clearly suffers from some sort of mental illness which raises questions not only about the nature of her death but also about Teddy’s strange behavior and erratic way of communicating.  His dialogue is very stream-of-consciousness.  He sits and types on a computer that Irene insists is broken (“Gerry says it’s broken.”)  He tells Irene a strange story about a man at his office who has been slowly poisoning him over the years, starting by stabbing him with a pencil and then slowly but surely leaving small cuts and wounds all over his body.  He tells her that he tried to talk to other people about it but they didn’t believe him, or they warned him that his attacker was well-connected and he would be punished.  The story is strange and hard to believe…and yet it sounds so much like the corporate politics and professional back-stabbing that so many of us see and experience on a daily basis.

Downstairs MainIrene is talking to Teddy about his plans and makes it clear that he cannot stay.  When he presses her – after all, the basement is clearly unused and suits his limited needs very well – she gets nervous and indicates that her husband Gerry would not approve and has told her that Teddy must leave.  Teddy persists, and as Irene argues with him we start to feel that maybe Gerry isn’t the “good provider” that he tells Irene he is.  At one point, Irene says that she had asked him a question about something and his blank face suddenly “changed,” and it was terrible.  Then it went back to a blank stare.  Teddy reads this as Gerry being possessed by some sort of demon, a point he won’t let go of and by which Irene seems more upset than she might otherwise be considering Teddy’s propensity for wild stores and hyperbolic descriptions.  As they continue to talk, Irene begins to open up about how she feels about her life.  One of the most brilliant moments is when Irene is talking about looking at her clothing in the closet, and not being able to remember how any of those clothes made her feel, or why she bought them.  She remembers being in the store, trying them on, paying…but nothing about the “why.”  She says they feel hostile, like her clothes are “being mean” to her.  Teddy, in one of his more insightful moments, says that maybe something Gerry said made her change.  Maybe it’s not the clothes that are being mean.

FearWhen Gerry finally appears, he’s clearly not a very nice guy.  He tells Teddy that he needs to get out, that Irene asked him to get Teddy out while she was shopping.  Teddy and Irene had spent the previous night talking and sharing memories, so he doesn’t believe it.  He refuses to leave.  At this point, Gerry becomes more menacing.  At first the threats are pretty typical, macho stuff about making him leave, but then the timbre changes: Gerry tells him about how Irene loved rescues, that she had two dogs that “just disappeared – and no one noticed.”  He tells Teddy that sometimes people just disappear that way as well, that everyone has a few people they care about and the rest of the billions of people in the world are “just noise.”  There was never any question that Gerry is a bad guy – but exactly how bad?

Irene comes home and interrupts them, and Gerry tries the old ploy of saying, “Teddy here was just saying that he has to leave, weren’t you Teddy,” thinking that his threats have done the trick.  Teddy, however, is not one to care much about social cohesion and calls Gerry out on his threats and intimidation.  In the next scene, Teddy is downstairs and the stage directions indicate in no uncertain terms that Irene pays a price for Teddy’s resistance, and in the next scene Irene has prepared a picnic basket for Teddy and makes it clear that he needs to leave.  Teddy again talks about Gerry’s demon inside, and how Irene deserves to be happy and to live in a way where her clothes aren’t mean to her.  He asks her what happened to her dogs; Irene talks about the two pound dogs and is clearly affected by his questions.  There is also more talk of the money their mother left, how it was hundreds of thousands of dollars, and how now it’s gone and Irene can’t explain how or why.

KarmaLater, after Teddy is gone, Irene goes down to the basement to find Gerry working on the “broken” computer.  They argue; she asks him about her dogs.  She tells him that her dogs were smart, and that she saw the box of rat poison in the basement.  She didn’t know what had happened…but she notes that she never asked about it.  She took his story of the dogs running away and never asked any of the obvious questions, like how could two dogs both run away and never come back?  Gerry admits that he killed the dogs, and his full darkness is revealed: he tells her about poisoning the dogs, and about how rat poison is slow to act and he had to bury the dogs while they were still partially alive.  He admits that this is not the first time he has killed animals, and that he enjoys killing them.  When Irene asks why he married her, he tells her it was a good cover and that he needed her money and that she was “pretty…pretty enough.”  Irene isn’t married to your run-of-the-mill, wife-beating asshole; she’s married to a full on psychopath.  As they are arguing, she picks up a wrench and holds it in front of her; Gerry’s temper is rising and he tells her she needs to put the wrench down or he will take it from her and hit her with it “again and again and again.”  Suddenly Teddy’s theory of demonic position doesn’t sound so crazy.  Violence is averted by a knock at the door.  Gerry continues to menace Irene, saying they will go away.  Irene laughs.  “No, they won’t,” she tells him, and laughs again.  Irene has called the police. 

BrokenIn the next scene, Irene is waiting for Teddy in the basement.  He comes in and seems more scattered, more erratic than the earlier scenes; he has been out on his own and is clearly not doing well.  Irene tells him that Gerry is gone, that he had been stealing money not only from her but from lots of other people, and the evidence was all stored on the “broken” computer.  She invites him to stay in the basement.  He is reluctant, he seems to want to leave, but he soon falls asleep with Irene holding his hand.

What I appreciated most was how well each character, in their own way, represented mental illness and madness.  Teddy is the most clearly affected, but Irene’s fragility and her inability to question her husband’s sinister actions speak to her experience of trauma and the effects of that.  Gerry is the most socially adept of them, but also the most clearly dangerous.  He enjoys inflicting pain and distress on others, and uses his relationship with Irene to deflect suspicion (fans of Dexter will be familiar with this sort of undercover psychotic, but without Michael C. Hall’s stiff charm).  To present these two kinds of mental illness next to each other brings up lots of very important questions about how we recognize mental illness, and how we treat the people who suffer from it.  Gerry is the most dangerous, but because he knows how to play along he is able to get away with all of him terrible deeds.  Teddy, on the other hand, is harmless but his illness makes him the most vulnerable: he is unable to keep his job, is struggling with homelessness, and has no credibility; Gerry is absolutely right when he says that Teddy could disappear and no one would notice.  Irene would be devastated, but would probably assume that he just wandered out of her life, never to return.  Like her two dogs, she would likely ignore any evidence that might suggest his exit was anything but voluntary.

Mental Illness 2Ironically, Teddy’s disconnect from the social world puts him in a place to be of the most help to Irene.  Irene simply believes that because Gerry says the computer is broken, it must be so.  Teddy tries to fix it, and he tries in his own bumbling way to fix Irene’s sorry situation.  And in a way, he does.  His questioning of what lies beneath the surface of Irene’s marriage forces her to look at the reality of the world in which she lives.  She begins to realize that it isn’t her clothes that are “mean” to her, but rather the snide comments from Gerry that have affected her self-esteem.  Teddy has discovered the demon that lives inside Gerry; now that he has seen it and pointed it out, Irene can’t help but notice that she’s seen it all along.

The actors apparently had only two rehearsals to prepare for the reading, but I was amazed that they all brought such dynamic, realized characters to the production. [Name] was absolutely stunning as Irene.  She has a thin, wispy voice that can unexpectedly rage when she finally finds her courage.  Her mannerisms were so natural that I still am not 100% sure if her clutching at a tissue in her pocket and frequently wiping her nose was an affect, or if she was actually fighting off a cold.  I felt genuinely scared for her as she faced off against Gerry, and I shared in her celebration when she revealed her final triumph.  [Name], who played Teddy, really brought a loose, skittish style to Teddy that made him both likable and tragic; as he was telling his outlandish stories, I really wanted to believe him.  I wanted there to be a mysterious poisoner so that I didn’t have to come to terms with the idea that his mind wasn’t completely intact.

Mental IllnessGerry is the least likable, but [Name]’s portrayal is just as real and true as the others.  He is the office bully we all know, the boss who abuses us and seems to be rewarded at every turn, the neighbor who disrespects property boundaries without consequence, the rich kid who gets away with every misdeed because of Daddy’s money and influence.  [Name] has an imposing presence but doesn’t rely on mere physicality in his portrayal, peeling back the layers to reveal the deeper madness within.  His disbelief at being outwitted by Irene adds a touch of humor to the resolution, but also a touch of sadness: when he’s terrorizing his wife and murdering animals, he is allowed free reign and is only apprehended for stealing money.  The financial crime is much less disturbing than his numerous human crimes, but those will probably never be known or avenged.  The outcome is poetic justice, but still with a touch of bitterness.

Holding it all together is [Name]’s performance reading the stage directions, a “role” which is easy to overlook but which provided necessary transition and gave the actors room to speak through “silence” as much as they do through their dialogue.  Her reading of the stage directions was clear and engaging, and kept me immersed in the story throughout.

Downstairs was a thoroughly entertaining show with enough mystery to keep me guessing until the end.  At one point, I wondered if maybe Teddy wasn’t even real – perhaps Irene was the unstable one, and Teddy was a figment of her imagination or the memory of a dead brother.  What if Gerry’s malice was just his inability to be in the same frame of reference as Irene or Teddy, and is being filtered through their perception to appear menacing?  There were so many questions, and the skillful dialogue and engrossing plot combined with pitch perfect performances kept me riveted until the final moments.  I didn’t see any of the other plays in the series, so I can’t speak to their quality, but I will say that any production of this script, and especially one where these actors would have the opportunity to further develop these characters, would be utterly enjoyable.

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