Real-life couples don’t always make the most convincing partners onstage. The same can be said of real-life siblings. Case in point: Downstairs, a desultory piece written by Theresa Rebeck for Tim and Tyne Daly, now receiving its New York premiere from Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
For a bespoke work, it plays to neither actor’s particular strength. Tim Daly’s effortless charm works against the wiry, fearful energy of his character, Teddy, who takes refuge in his sister Irene’s shabby basement. (Narelle Sissons designed the realistic set). Teddy believes his coworkers have poisoned him. He mutters about a complex, secret project that occupies most of his time. And he compares Irene’s gruff husband Gerry (John Procaccino) to a demon without the slightest sense of irony.
Even at his most dissociative, though, Tim Daly projects an air of mental and physical hardiness and charisma that makes any questionable behavior seem like just a passing cloud. He never loses himself inside Teddy’s paranoia. When Irene starts to wonder and worry about his connection to reality, you can’t help but feel that she’s overreacting, at least to some degree.
Irene has her own cross to bear – particularly the controlling, belittling Gerry, who rules their home with an iron fist. But Tyne Daly doesn’t seem browbeaten in the least. Strength, resilience, and an unwavering sense of agency have always defined her performances on stage and screen. A lack of vulnerability hurts Irene’s progression from meek housewife to self-actualized woman. From the beginning, Tyne Daly is a match for anything that comes her way.
The most surprising element missing here may be the lack of a believable shared history in the performances. The play’s first hour largely comprises conversations between Teddy and Irene that rehash their past and give context to how he ended up in the basement and she ended up in such an unfulfilling, occasionally scary marriage. They talk of an absent father and a mentally unbalanced, abusive mother. But under Adrienne Campbell-Holt’s action-focused, nuance-free direction, the progression of their relationship and their individual journeys remain blurry. They deliver Rebeck’s frantic, sometimes overlapping dialogue without a sense of rapport.
The play doesn’t wake up until Procaccino’s Gerry arrives, hell-bent on driving Teddy out of his house. Costumed by Sarah Laux to look like a suburban everyman – beige pleated Dockers, short-sleeve button down, orthopedic shoes – he initially looks and sounds disarming, like any middle-aged middle manager type you might find working in a faceless office. But Procaccino finds every menacing layer beneath the bland surface, imbuing his performance with a sense of danger that elevates the material and the production. If his co-stars seem ill-suited to their assignments, he shows himself born to play the bad guy.
What a shame, then, that the play itself has such low stakes. Rebeck’s plays have always been too outwardly clever and self-aware to dig deep and potentially unsettle her audience. In Downstairs, which bills itself as a thriller and contains an interesting but predictable plot twist, she aims for Pinter, with charged silences and gruesome details implied but largely left unsaid. But the things her characters actually do say tend to undermine the sense of dread necessary to pull off the kind of psychological cat-and-mouse game she partially constructs.
The dialogue tends toward overstatement, with a fair amount of sitcom-level humor. Subtlety isn’t on the docket, even when Rebeck tries to work in the abstract. Production elements further hamper any sense of moodiness and tension: M.L. Dogg’s suggestive sound cues, layered on top of overlong scene changes, particularly telegraph the tenor of the scenes they introduce.
Campbell-Holt directs with mechanical shallowness. There isn’t a moment or gesture in the production that feels spontaneous or dangerous. Procaccino largely overcomes this, although he’s not immune to a false action here and there – when he picks up a stack of post-it notes, there’s no doubt he will hurl them at Tim Daly in a fit of rage. The Daly siblings have a harder time communicating a natural impulsiveness, perhaps due to their general miscasting.
Tellingly, Downstairs ends not on a note of inconclusiveness, but one of surety. After engineering a taut but speculative confrontation between Irene and Gerry, Rebeck buttons the play with a coda that explains everything in the baldest terms. Rather than embracing the abstract, she leaves the audience entirely aware of what they’ve seen, what’s to come, and how we should feel about it all. Like the relationship at the center of the play, it should be dynamic but feels largely false.