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Off-Broadway Play Review—Bruce Norris’ “Downstate”

Written by Bruce Norris
Directed by Pam MacKinnon
Through December 22, 2022
Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
The cast of Downstate (photo: Joan Marcus)

Although Bruce Norris won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for his 2010 play Clybourne Park, I found it heavyhanded, obvious and even self-congratulatory. But his latest, Downstate, is as challenging and thought-provoking as the earlier play never was.
Downstate—which refers to southern Illinois, downstate from Chicago, and not the tri-state area here—is set in a halfway house for convicted sex offenders who have completed their prison terms. The men—Fred, Dee, Gio and Felix—have many restrictions on their lives and their movements, which are carefully monitored by their probation officer, Ivy, who is tough but not entirely unsympathetic to their plight: that basically, no one in the community wants them around, as witness the broken window near the front door or the latest admonishment, which Ivy explains to them, of them not being able to go to the closest grocery store but must get to another one, on the other side of the interstate. 
The play begins with Fred, elderly and in a wheelchair, listening intently to a visiting couple—Andy and his wife Em—trying to put into words what Andy wants from him: for starters, an apology for the abuse he suffered while Fred was his piano teacher while he was a kid. There’s an immediate sense of unease that remains just under the surface throughout, and Norris adroitly adds other scenes that, while repetitive, always slightly refocus how we see these men. 
Even Fred’s small electric piano, sitting in the middle of the room, is a constant reminder of what he’s done to young boys. Later, Andy returns alone to retrieve the phone he apparently forgot after his initial visit, again confronting Fred, who sits in front of that piano as Andy angrily blusters; as Dee tries, in his own way, to help Fred deal with this latest affront, Norris sympathetically balances Andy’s real hurt with Fred’s already having paid for his crime. 
Downstate is an intelligent and provocative play about a problematic subject, but like Clybourne Park (if less so), it doesn’t always escape contrivance. For example, Gio conveniently brings his young Staples coworker Effie back to the house after Andy has returned and, when he finishes his showdown with Fred and Dee and tries to leave, her car is blocking Andy’s car in the yard. 
Then, when she goes outside to move it, she can’t start it, returning to the house to ask if anybody has jumper cables. This leads to the play’s final desperate moments when Andy ends up wielding a baseball bat and everybody discovers what happened to Felix—who went missing after Ivy tells him she knows he broke his parole to go to the library and access the internet to contact his teenage daughter, whom he abused when she was younger.
Despite a few missteps, Norris credibly allows each of the men in the house—whose own wrongdoings have landed them there, shunned by most of society, with few if any family or friends to confide in—their humanity, having paid for what they have done but now feeling that they themselves are being wronged in some way. 
The mostly exemplary acting is a great asset. Although Gabi Samels can’t do much with the underwritten role of Effie, Susanna Guzman is bluntly forceful as Ivy, Tim Hopper is a compellingly damaged Andy, and Sally Murphy makes the most of her brief stage time as Em. The four ex-cons are persuasively embodied by Eddie Torres (Felix), Glenn Davis (Gio) and—in the pivotal parts—K. Todd Freeman (Dee) and Francis Guinan (Fred). Guinan makes Fred’s ability to cozy up to his victims even decades later creepily real, while Freeman trenchantly enacts Dee’s preening as a justified defense mechanism.
Pam MacKinnon pointedly directs on Todd Rosenthal’s ultra-realistic unit set, with assists from Adam Silverman’s resourceful lighting and Carolyn Downing’s spot-on sound design. While not flawless, the unapologetically adult Downstate is worth a visit.

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