Why ‘Downstate’ is New York’s most controversial, must-see play
The Daily Beast
November 16, 2022
In Bruce Norris’ brilliant and shocking play “Downstate,” a man confronts his childhood abuser in a house of pedophiles. Plus, a young star steals the show in “The Bandaged Place.”
The creepiest, most skin-crawling villain on the New York City stage right now can be found at Playwrights Horizons (to December 11) in what is the most daring, confronting, disturbing, and flawlessly executed production of the season so far.
In Bruce Norris’ Downstate, directed with visceral immediacy by Pam MacKinnon, Fred (Francis Guinan) gets around in a motorized wheelchair. He seems gentle, unassuming, and genial. Harmless. But Fred is a pedophile in his 70s, and the very opposite of harmless; the harm he has caused is incalculable, and however benign he seems now—and the play treads a queasy-making knife-edge around this very question—the damage his abuse has wrought is visible right in front of us. The play opens with Andy (Tim Hopper), a man in his 40s, accompanied by wife Em (Sally Murphy), confronting Fred about what he did to Andy when the latter was a 12-year-old boy.
Norris’ talent for dark, audacious comedy thrumming alongside the grave subject matter of the play is immediately apparent; as a furious and emotional Andy tries to get his words out, he is constantly interrupted by the mundane comings-and-goings in the drab, airless house Fred lives in, by housemates Dee (K. Todd Freeman), Gio (Glenn Davis), and Felix (Eddie Torres). They are all pedophiles, and this is a halfway house south of Chicago in downstate Illinois where they can be monitored as they try to craft post-custodial lives. They are well aware that the community at large does not feel they deserve any chances—they receive death threats, the house is vandalized.
In Downstate, Norris—whose play Clybourne Park won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama—investigates the limits of compassion and forgiveness, and justice and retribution (obviously there are those for whom watching such a play will be too triggering and traumatizing). The title is both a literal geographical location and also a concise encapsulation of the state of the victims’ and perpetrators’ lives. There is sharp comedy somehow threaded into this gnarly canvas, and it says something about how good every actor is on stage that it is kind of impossible to laugh at any of it. The abuses we hear of, the men’s crimes, are the blunt shadow over all of them.
Andy—Hopper’s voice shaking, his body folded in on itself, barely able to look at Fred—tells his abuser he is a “fundamentally evil person.” Whatever has happened in a court of law already, he wants to say these words, and for Fred to acknowledge all he did. Fred just looks at him with what looks like concern, but which can also seem like the same kind of quiet control he exerted as an abuser. “Well, gosh,” he says, trying to encourage Andy to say what he needs to say, as if he’s just there to help. His “aw shucks” demeanor doesn’t shift when Andy tells him about the violent revenge he has long dreamed to enact with gun and duct tape for Fred’s mouth, “so I wouldn’t have to listen to any of your toxic bullshit.”
Fred stays his Mr. Rogers-ish self as the onslaught continues, brow furrowed in concern, even as Em underlines to him: “Having to sit here with a person who devastated the life of someone I love? Frankly? Makes me want to vomit.” Guinan plays Fred as an impassive tabula rasa throughout. What is he? Who is he? Much is left up to the audience to decode. The manipulative villain this audience member perceived may not be an impression shared by others.
‘The’ pedophiles are joined in uneasy domesticity—with kvetching over the purchasing of breakfast cereal and French vanilla coffee alongside the gravity of their crimes, the depressing everything of where they have ended up, and the disturbing fact that none seem to have accepted the gravity of what they have been convicted of doing—or perhaps it is their deluded certainty they can somehow move beyond it to build a future. As Dee notes, “The job market is somewhat limited for the elderly Black homosexual convict.” Gio barrels forward with his plans to build a prosperous life, even hoping to use Andy’s white-collar respectability as a golden ticket.
The men’s probation officer Ivy (Susanna Guzmán) is there to make clear what they cannot do, and patrol their movements, which are being curtailed further to keep them away from local children—they can no longer go to their regular grocery store. Gio—who abused an underage girl—is violently homophobic, so hates the sanguine and waspish Dee, who abused an underage boy, smashing up the glass frame of Dee’s Lady Sing the Blues movie poster. If the presence of Andy signals one kind of trouble to come, when Gio brings home the comically bolshy, young female co-worker Effie (Gabi Samels), it signals another if she is discovered to be there.
Felix stays mostly hidden behind his partitioned bedroom, and it is his alleged continuation of the incestuous abuse he was found guilty of that leads to further censure from Ivy, and then even darker events. Whatever Ivy is, she is not supportive of the men’s justifications for their behavior and protestations of injustice. “Everyone of you’s a victim. Everybody’s misunderstood, been done wrong, system’s broke, system ain’t fair blah blah… but I’ll tell ya something. If y’all feel so victimized? Maybe that gives ya a little idea how ya made other people feel, OK?”
When Dee says he gets “a little tired” of living under such 360-degree prohibition, Dee says, “You know the law. You don’t like the situation you’re in, whose fault is that?” He says he is fed up with being told who he can love. Dee reminds him of his sexual abuse of a minor, which is not love. Dee, unrepentant, points to a New Guinea tribe where child sexual abuse is a ritualized part of growing up.
This brew of anger, defensiveness, and pain is so volatile that when Dee asks Ivy if she wants more coffee and she responds, “What I want is a Key Lime Martini from Outback Steakhouse”—the best-delivered line in the play—it punctures the tension, if only briefly.
Andy, frustrated at not fully confronting Fred, returns to do so. First, Andy and Dee disagree over the punishment necessary for child abusers. “I was raped by a serial predator,” Andy says, which Dee airily dismisses. When Andy insists Fred sign a declaration that he put his dick in Andy’s mouth, which he insists he remembers “with absolute fucking clarity,” events take another violent turn with an additional graphically horrible postscript. Again, just as was the play’s opening, aw-shucks Fred’s scene with an utterly broken Andy is beyond uncomfortable to watch. On one level, Fred seems inert, on another he seems to be switching on the silent engines of his abuse again—the elicitation of memories, the gaslighting, the physical touch.
Plays, movies, and TV shows are regularly, lazily, called shocking. Downstate actually is—not because it sides with the four pedophiles, but because it lays graphically bare what Fred has done to Andy, and also gives Fred, Dee, Gio, and Felix the space to explain, rather than defend, themselves. Every word on stage is uncomfortable to hear.
The play interrogates what place abusers occupy, and what they do and do not deserve from their present and future. The men have all done unforgivable things, but if they are all still drawing breath—and Andy and Em wonder if they should have a right to do so—where should these men live? How should they live? What should victims of abuse do? How should they carry on with their lives? What justice is due them?
Downstate does not offer answers, and it is not a plea for tolerance and compassion for abusers. It is a blunt and raw maze of harsh questions, few solutions, and eddying emotions, riven with pain. It is not exploitative or prurient, but rather insolubly confronting, and one of the truly excellent, must-see pieces of theater of the year.
the bandaged place
It’s always a thrill to find a jewel of an off-Broadway play, even more so if it includes an unexpected standout of a performance. In the bandaged place (Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, to Dec 18) Phoenix Noelle as young kid Ella (a role Noelle shares with Sasha Manuel) charmingly steals the show—in a show of excellent performances. Ella loves to dance: a ball of happy energy with a line in cute backchat and witty asides, who is nevertheless worried about the happiness and health of her dad Jonah (Jhardon DiShon Milton), who is in the throes of trying to fully extricate himself from his abusive partner Ruben (Anthony Lee Medina).
Jonah’s grandmother Geraldine (Stephanie Berry) takes care of Ella day to day, and is stern with a heart of gold. You wouldn’t want to cross her, but you’d definitely want to eat anything she was cooking. Sam (Jake Ryan Lozano) is Ella’s cute, charming, and endlessly understanding dance teacher, who falls for Jonah.
The theme of dance, and liberation through movement, is conveyed in Harrison David Rivers’ play through Tislarm Bouie’s choreography, embodying both the most romantic and violent of emotions. These bursts of dance punctuate the story—including an extremely fun fleet-of-foot preparation for a dinner scene. In the basement space, Wilson Chin’s spartan design is given depth by the use of mirrors, which makes viewing the play under David Mendizábal’s lean direction a more expansive and intriguing experience, while also adding layers to the emotions we see, and the time shifts of the narrative.
The story can feel conventional (if you’ve ever seen a domestic abuse storyline on film or TV you will recognize the familiar beats of the story), but the intimacy of the space and the charm and wit of Rivers’ writing, and the lovely performances—making you laugh, making you worried, achieving that rare thing of seeming absolutely real, and so close to you as you watch—all keep you rooted to your seat, and rooting for some kind of happy ending.
Miscommunication is an early hallmark of Camp Siegfried (Tony Kiser Theater, to Jan 4), Bess Wohl’s play about a young man (Johnny Berchtold) and young woman (Lily McInerny) meeting at the Long Island summer camp for families and youth, run by the German-American Bund. The camp operated from 1936 to 1941, and this is the summer of 1938; World War II is imminent and Nazism is in full rhetorical bloom at the camp. The two young people—who play out their weird, sometimes inaudible psychodrama on a drearily conceived sloping hill of grass and path—have swallowed its poison, and are already enthusiastically belching its ugliness.
At the beginning of the play, the boy and girl don’t really hear each other, and the whole play—despite their flirtation, which inevitably leads to sex—feels like a strange exercise in halting communication and squawking fury. We see only two characters on stage, but we hear the voices and laughter of their campmates around them. As they drag wood (full marks to Berchtold for his excellent chopping skills), then build a platform, then lie around on the grass, talking about everything and nothing, the play feels listless. It should have an urgency, but does not.
There is also something grating about the pair, despite the moment when she briefly jettisons her seemingly submissive self to dominate him. The play should feel like a waspishly dark, grim elegy, but it doesn’t—and its two young protagonists feel lost, both right in front of us and also in the grander sweep of history.