Tyne Daly and Tim Daly in ‘Downstairs.’ (Photo: James Leynse)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Tyne Daly (TV’s Cagney and Lacey and Tony Award winner for the 1989 revival of Gypsy) and her brother, Tim Daly (TV’s Madam Secretary and Coastal Disturbances, Off-Broadway and Broadway), get together on stage for the first time as, appropriately, siblings—Irene and Teddy—in Downstairs by the prolific Theresa Rebeck (Bernhardt/Hamlet). Now presented by Primary Stages at downtown’s Cherry Lane Theatre, following its 2017 premiere at Vermont’s Dorset Theatre Festival, Downstairs is a so-so thriller specifically written for the Dalys.
These fine actors offer nuanced performances in roles that require Tim to abandon his leading man polish to play someone lost and vulnerable, and Tyne to shift from take-charge woman to a sweet, insecure housewife cowed by a menacing spouse. Ironically, the most distinctive character is Irene’s paunchy husband, Gerry, played by John Procaccino (Our Mother’s Brief Affair) with the kind of casual, everyday cruelty you can imagine might have given you night sweats if performed by a gone-to-seed Robert Mitchum.
Seediness and secrets pervade Irene and Gerry’s shabby basement, where Teddy, recently out of work and planning something he promises Irene will get him back on his feet, has been crashing on an old sofa. Among her other blanks, however, Rebeck never tells us what he does for a living or what he’s scheming to do.
The unfinished basement has been designed with photorealist detail by Narelle Sissons, and serviceably lit by Michael Gianitti. Sissons shows us the stained walls, exposed pipes and beams, cartons of detritus, a worktable laden with tools, a boxy old computer, and a steep staircase that allows people to come into view feet first. Among the tools is a hefty monkey wrench; when Teddy lifts it, you may remember Chekhov’s dictum about guns.
Talking of hardware, Teddy, while intelligent and articulate, nonetheless appears to have a few screws loose. It’s hard to tell, however, if his paranoiac assertions are based on truth or madness. Roaming about in unkempt clothes (when he bothers to put his pants on), his graying hair a sloppy bird’s nest, and eating dried cereal from an old bowl, he worries his meek, frumpily dressed (Sarah Laux did the costumes) and coiffed sister, who’s frightened that her husband will kick the guy out.
Irene cooks for Teddy and bakes him cakes, listens to his belief in demons, and hears him claim that someone at work poisoned him by sticking him with a pencil. Teddy, meanwhile, is obsessed with something he’s discovered on the computer, which Irene (repeating what Gerry told her) insists is broken. Oddly, not once does she bother to look at it, even as Teddy sticks Post-it notes on it about what he’s found.
Downstairs takes a long time setting up its talkative exposition, made to seem even longer under Adrienne Campbell-Holt’s too sluggish direction. Rebeck’s siblings rehash the dysfunctional aspects of their family past, including the revelation that their eccentric, boozing mother left her money to Irene and nothing to Teddy, and that Gerry used the inheritance to buy their house.
There’s a natural flow to the dialogue, and, once things finally begin to intensify, a feeling of suspense, but Rebeck holds back too much, forcing us to fill in the many gaps. While what’s on the computer is described as horrible, we’re never told what it is. Ditto for whatever it is that Gerry is doing by frantically tapping on the keyboard to alter or eliminate it.
Before that happens, though, Rebeck manages a chilling entrance for Gerry when his lower half is revealed at the top of the stairs, where we’ve grown accustomed to seeing Irene. Gerry, who at first appears to act rationally toward Teddy, claiming it’s Irene’s wish that he leave, gradually discloses his true nature. Animal lovers: brace yourselves.
Eventually, Irene and Gerry have their preordained confrontation, she borrows some of the old Tyne Daly spunk, and that monkey wrench tightens the tension. M.L. Dogg’s sound score helps as well, although it’s unclear why his preshow and curtain music introduces pop tunes of the 1920s and 1930s.
Few shivers aside, Downstairs is a minor work providing three first-rate players with colorful roles. These, more than the material they inhabit, are the reason to spend with them a passable hour and 45 minutes of Greenwich Village time, even in that creepy basement.
Primary Stages at The Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce St., NYC
Through December 22
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sam, a Drama Desk voter, has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theatre, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side, Theater Pizzazz, and Theater Life.