Thrills, Chills, Battle of Wills: Theresa Rebeck’s ‘Downstairs’ Terrifies

With Tyne Daly and Tim Daly reaching new acting heights, what is the playwright afraid of?

Tim and Tyne Daly in Theresa Rebeck's "Downstairs." Photo: James Leynse.

No sooner does one Theresa Rebeck play close than another one opens. On the same Sunday afternoon that her Bernhardt/Hamlet, starring Janet McTeer, closed on Broadway, her Downstairs, starring sister-brother actors Tyne Daly and Tim Daly, opened Off-Broadway. (One pictures Rebeck having a head-scratching time deciding which performance to attend.)

Rebeck is nothing if not prolific, but here it might be said that “prolific” could be interpreted as a form of the word “promiscuous.” For she’s sometimes prolific to her own detriment.

Or to put it another way, her work, like her ostensible schedule on Sunday, is quite literally all over the place. She seems so busy turning out her plays that her plays don’t receive the pre-production finishing touches I think they need. Take Bernhardt/Hamlet, which followed the private and public controversy over the legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt assuming the legendary male role. It was a highly intriguing idea. But the result was a repetitive work that could have benefited from a strong dramaturg — or the playwright’s red pencil — to redact it to a taut length.

Downstairs, by contrast, is a sturdier property. A study of three characters, it may be termed a domestic thriller, and it succeeds on that enthralling level — at least until its last moments.

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According to a program note, Rebeck tailored the roles of the sister and brother to the Dalys. Tyne plays Irene and Tim plays Teddy — the latter, with a baleful array of psychological tics, is crashing in the very unfinished basement of the home Irene purchased some years earlier, using money that the siblings should have shared when their high-strung mother died.

But Irene has been browbeaten by her husband, Gerry (John Procaccino), into maintaining that the house is actually his domain. As relations between Teddy and Gerry are habitually strained, Gerry wants Teddy out of the basement and out of the house. Knowing Gerry’s propensity for violence, Irene behaves as if she, too, wants Teddy gone — despite a lifelong devotion to her younger brother.

What ensues is a tug-of-war between distrait, dissembling-prone, cowering Teddy and the towering Gerry — who Rebeck craftily holds back for a late entrance, Irene alternatively switching from one side of the metaphorical rope to the other.

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Speaking of metaphors, this very unfinished basement certainly represents a level of lowness at which certain human emotions, normally suppressed, get carried out. Note that the set, designed by Narelle Sissons, is convincingly outfitted with a long wooden staircase and, most  prominently, a dated computer that Irene insists is broken and Teddy insists is not. Keep an eye on that computer — especially whenever anyone is at it.

Rebeck builds the coming battle with mounting tension: Teddy refusing to move on; Gerry using everything in his considerable power to predominate; Irene wavering between catering to Teddy and encouraging him to leave. Seeing that the three-way altercation is fully realized, director Adrienne Campbell-Holt does her commendable utmost.

Shortly after Irene wields a wrench at Gerry, at least one of the warring participants prevails. Who that victor is I won’t disclose here, but the outcome is where Rebeck’s acumen falters.

I saw where Rebeck was heading with her three damaged figures; I will guess I wasn’t alone. And I hasten to add that seeing where a play is heading isn’t necessarily a problem. Watching how a playwright gets there can be just as much a part of, in this instance, the scarifying of the audience. As Gerry threatens, and as Irene and Teddy move and retreat, a large part of the chills in Downstairs is simply us inching more and more to the edge of our seat.

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But actually, that’s the point: up until now, Rebeck has openly had her jollies terrorizing Irene and Teddy and therefore terrorizing us. Then her denouement (spoiler ahead) eases up on the fright, shifting to a conciliatory conclusion when she might have dreamed up one final jolting twist. (What Henri-Georges Clouzot constructs in his 1955 film Diabolique comes to mind.)

As Irene, Tyne Daly is very unlike the beaming, confident, undaunted characters she’s played on stage and going back to her Cagney and Lacey days. In the low-to-middle-class wardrobe selected for her by Sarah Laux, and wearing a long wig created for her by Leah Loukas, her Irene is severely daunted and endlessly timorous; her expression often implies a vain hope against hope. As a result, this is one of her best and most surprising performances.

The same goes for Tim Daly — whose fumbling around with shoulders stooped and, in his first scene, in a shirt and underwear, is distanced from the TV series he’s spent time in. He makes plain there’s much that Teddy is hiding about the job from which he’s supposedly vacationing and about a start-up supposedly in the works. He does emanate pleasure and some obvious technical skills whenever he mans the computer. He’s also demonstrating new acting colors.

Procaccino uses his imposing height and weight to play easily at the Dalys’ elevated plateaus. Rebeck writes Gerry as a ready-to-explode bundle of dynamite and Procaccino gives her and director Campbell-Holt everything they could ask for.

There’s no gainsaying the icy oomph that Rebeck packs into Downstairs (which M.L. Dogg heightens with nerve-chewing music). But there’s still a feeling that the playwright could be going further. The idea is nothing to be scared of.