‘Downstate’ a Powerhouse of a Play, With Sterling Performances
Do we ever receive justice for wrongs done to us if the wrongdoer goes to jail and apologizes? Or are we so damaged no justice or forgiveness is possible? In Downstate, Bruce Norris raises such questions and many more in his compelling play superbly directed by Pam MacKinnon currently at Playwrights Horizons.
At the top of the play the reserved Andy (Tim Hopper) and his concerned wife Em (Sally Murphy) sit opposite Fred (Francis Guinan) who is a senior gentleman, disabled in a motorized wheelchair. As they attempt to discuss why Andy has come to visit, Dee (K. Todd Freeman) comes in with a shopping cart with groceries and Gio (Matthew J. Harris) quibbles with him about the money he owes Dee for bananas. Surveying the house and the roommates, only Fred is white, we surmise this living arrangement has been forced. As it turns out, all four roommates including Felix (Eddie Torres) who eventually comes out of his bedroom to make himself breakfast are convicted sex offenders, who wear leg braces so their activities may be monitored.
Andy visits Fred with Em to discuss Fred’s predation which happened over thirty years ago, when Andy was twelve and Fred was his piano teacher. Andy tells Fred he ruined his life and he can’t function the way he felt he could have if Fred had left him alone. Norris intimates subterranean clues why Andy has taken the liberty to visit Fred. Though Fred didn’t have to, he agrees to see Andy. In his 40s Andy is not supposed to be anywhere near Fred because Fred has served time and has been convicted and is currently transitioning and living in the half-way house. That Andy seeks Fred out and travels from Chicago to Downstate with his wife to deal with Fred is problematic and portentous.
After Andy and Em finish reading letters of judgment and recrimination they’ve written to Fred which Fred listens to calmly, they both reiterate that Fred is evil. When Em senses Andy is hesitating, she tells him to stop backpedaling and continue with why he’s come to see Fred. It is to get a full admission of what Fred has done to Andy. Fred insists he admitted to all of his actions in court, apologized and was sentenced. As they attempt to continue this discussion, the roommates are attempting to live their lives, get ready for work, make breakfast and use the bathroom. Clearly, the couple are a disruption to Dee, Gio and Felix. Yet, Em and Andy take umbrage at the activities around them interfering with the seriousness of their meeting. It is apparent that the mission they are on obviates the humanity of the other men whom they look down on. In their self-righteous ferocity there is an underlying remoteness and cruelty that Norris reveals in superb dialogue acted exceptionally.
Indeed, Andy and Em are so absorbed in Andy’s victimization and his wish to fully confront Fred with it, they become annoyed by the interruptions in an environment which Andy admits does not fit his expectations. It is as if in Andy’s imagination, he expects Fred to be a silent robot upon which he can unleash vilification without Fred responding as he sits in an isolated room just to listen to Andy’s rant about him. And ironically, part of that logical diatribe includes Andy telling Fred he has fantasized killing him. Interestingly, Fred responds with humanity and humility. He is apologetic and kindly to Andy which Andy ignores and dismisses. Andy reiterates that he has a right and is not supposed to feel empathy for and forgive Fred. Fred can extend him grace, but he doesn’t have to or want to receive it nor will he bestow it.
Norris does an impeccable job of revealing the humanity of both sides of the equation, especially in indicating that Andy, who is in therapy, has no idea how Fred’s life has been altered by what Fred refers to as his own sickness and deserved punishment. He believes Fred to be a fake. Tim Hopper’s Andy, Francis Guinan’s Fred and Sally Murphy’s Em are sensational in their performances listening acutely to each other and reacting with spot-on authenticity. Indeed, though we feel for Hopper’s Andy, Guinan’s Fred who is unassuming, childlike and kindly pulls us in and encourages our sympathy. When he reveals in a later discussion with Andy in Act II that an outraged fellow prisoner slyly brought in steel toed boots and kicked Fred so that his back was broken and he has to have a colostomy bag and can’t walk, we consider Andy’s “breast-beating” and Fred’s indulging him to be beyond ironic.
The relationship between Em and Andy as Norris infers, and the actors ingeniously perform with nuance, reveals there are intimacy issues and problems. Thus, Andy’s psychology seeking out Fred is much more complicated than having him sign a reconciliation paper. In Act II the complication is further exposed and we note Andy’s emotional issues which he can’t confront in himself. These allow him to cling to victimization perhaps for another reason. Clearly, Andy and Em are not satisfied with the “justice” Fred has received and by the end of the play we understand that there is more to predation that happens between victims and their predators, than what there is assumed to be. Perhaps, it is not all on the evil and perverted side of the predator. This is tricky ground and Norris navigates it with understanding, forthrightness and intelligence.
After Andy and Em leave in annoyance, PO Ivy (Susanna Guzman in a fine performance) visits. It is here where we begin to understand how the individuals are monitored and hated by the outside community. Also, the problems that they face living in the house are not being addressed by the state, another example that they are a bottom priority. For example, the house needs a broken window and a leaky septic tank repaired. Ivy tells them that they should pay for the repairs themselves. She is too overworked to deal with it. There are more important reasons for her visit. Ivy brings information which indicates the culture’s judgment of sex offenders has mandated increased restrictions on their transportation and mobility. When Dee asks for the particulars, they discover that the routes they must now take are illogical. The point is that the neighborhood opposes their being in the area and petitions constantly for them to leave; the mandate is a sop thrown to the neighborhood.
Norris also outlines the interactions between the four men. Gio and Felix, who are religious, act superior and reject Dee’s lifestyle as a homosexual. Gio accuses Dee of taking advantage of Fred, who needs help bathing and toileting and pays Dee. Meanwhile, Ivy confronts Gio about his behaviors and he is defensive, insulting and bullying. She has to warn him that she can send him back to prison if he doesn’t shape up. In Ivy’s interactions with Eddie Torres’ Felix, we note her attempt to be even-handed. However, in Guzman’s questioning of Torres’ Felix, again, we feel for both characters. She must do her job and Felix is trying to live his life and at least reach out to his daughter on her birthday. Torres is spot-on in his emotionalism and his broken-hardheartedness. His portrayal is beautifully human and tugs at our hearts.
As a secondary character of great importance, Gio’s co-worker, Effie, has a friend who is a sex offender, so she should know the balancing act that must be taken with offenders. She doesn’t care. Norris uses her character as a catalyst. She has become close to Gio and plays fast and loose with his status as a first time offender found guilty of statutory rape with a minor. Gabi Samels’ Effie is provocative, high wired, a “wise-ass” and loud-mouth, knowledgeable enough about the law to use it with Guzman’s Ivy. Through Ivy and Dee’s response to her, we note her ADHD carelessness and irresponsibility is a train wreck waiting to happen.
K. Todd Freeman’s Dee serves as the house master, who on the one hand is aware of everyone’s business, but also watches out for each of the roommates, regarding their rights and responsibilities not to screw it up for each other. Sometimes it is efficacious and other times it backfires. Norris has given Dee the most humorous, witty, intelligent and lovable lines as a former show business person and lover of the arts. Freeman is incredible as the black, senior homosexual, who makes the perfect ironic retort when coming up against bigotry, hypocrisy and cruelty, displayed especially by Gio and Andy. Freeman and Guinan show their prodigious acting talents in establishing the caring, kind relationship between Dee and Fred. In their interactions with Gio and Felix, their performance is nuanced, and Freeman’s ironic delivery as Dee, who uses his humor to lay bare Gio’s arrogance and Andy’s internal psychological fears, is breathtaking.
Norris’s characterizations are beautifully drawn. The playwright enables us to better understand the impact of the hatred and fear leveled by a culture that has little mercy for individuals such as the offenders in Downstate. The humanity that the actors portray in Gio, Fred, Dee and Felix is heartfelt, poignant and tragic. As those on the outside, Andy, Em, Guzman and Gabi Samels are edgy and powerful. All of the characters’ interactions are organic, complex and nuanced. Not enough praise can be given to Pam MacKinnon for shepherding the fine performances of this stark, amazing, forceful ensemble piece.
Norris has set up the action threads in Act I, that he unravels to explode sensationally in Act II. There is no spoiler alert in this review. You will just have to see Downstate to find out the conflict developments between Andy and Fred, Ivy and Felix, and Gio and the catalysts Dee and Effie. The result is cataclysmic and heartbreaking
Kudos to Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design, Clint Ramos’ costume design, Adam Silverman’s lighting design, Carolyn Downing’s sound design, which are perfect for the reality and drama that MacKinnon’s vision requires. This gobsmacking production is one to see for its themes of love, humanity and grace, its wonderful performances and ensemble acting, and its overall production design. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.playwrightshorizons.org/shows/plays/downstate2223/
‘Linda Vista’ by Tracy Letts, a Sharp, Edgy Romp Through Sex, Love and Male Menopause
Steppenwolf’s production of Linda Vista by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award® winner Tracy Letts is a wild ride through aging masculinity receding in a “heady” pattern like one found in male baldness. Once it begins, the decline is precipitous and unwieldy if not ragingly unattractive. Letts takes the “older” concept for a separated, licentious boy-man and runs with it to its hysterical, one-liners climax of symphonic madness. Then he concludes with a searingly poignant, light-shining breakthrough of hope for the protagonist who at the last shot becomes appealing and sensitively human.
Letts’ Linda Vista, with well time and paced direction by Dexter Bullard sports exceptionally crisp, crackling dialogue. Letts’ characters are mundane and real. However, Letts engages us by giving them sardonic, self-effacing, humorous lines and ripping authenticity. The protagonist, the soon-to-be-divorced philanderer Wheeler (Ian Barford builds warmth and humanity with evolving emotional grist) is just this side of the sad-sack in the titular film Marty (1955) about a guy who is single, alone and has high expectations of hooking up with a beauteous gal. What diverts Wheeler from the more empathetic Marty-type is his arrogance and his self-depricating humor which reveals he doesn’t think he isn’t “all that.” In fact he believes himself brilliant and quite the “ladies man,” though he avers the opposite.
Wheeler’s humor is a double-edged sword. It prevents him from blowing his brains out during the holidays or becoming a psychotic and isolated Incel. On the other hand it also prevents him from self-revelation and self-intimacy. He does not reflect on the source of his inner devastation and self-loathing which leads him to repeat destructive patterns and crash and burn up relationships.
Letts’s characterization of this self-enfeebled boy-man who refuses to grow up pings of all the isms (ageism, sexism, chauvinism, etc.) which Wheeler buys into surreptitiously though he would be loathe to admit it up front. As a Caucasian male from a middle class background adhering to his demographic mores, he is manipulative and macho; empathizing with women is not “his thing.” Understanding is only to be exhibited to get somewhere with a woman. It never goes beyond skin deep!
Letts clues us into Wheeler’s basic flaws and male-privileged machismo attitudes at the top of the play as he comes on to his co-worker Anita (the excellent Caroline Neff). After she rebuffs him by stating she is trying to get herself together and can’t be involved with a “mess,” he quips manipulatively, “Thanks for saying ‘mess’ instead of ‘hot mess,’ which is a phrase I can’t stand.” Then Wheeler further adds, after thanking her for her honesty, “And he was humiliated.” Regardless of how forward and inappropriate his “come on” to a co-worker is, his humor endears and propels him into a seeming humanity. This is a blind as Letts adroitly underscores throughout the play.
Wheeler’s and Anita’s boss, Michael (the fine Troy West) is a foil to whom we compare Wheeler. Indeed, there are men who are so much worse than Wheeler. An unattractive and uber gross lecher, Michael ogles Anita’s breasts and makes demeaning, scurrilous comments about having sex with her. Thus, Wheeler’s light interaction and lunch invite shows him to be the proper angel with Anita. On the other hand Wheeler doesn’t chide or reprimand Michael for his salacious, untoward comments and indeed, is his sounding board and encourager behind Anita’s back. He has to learn better. In these scenes the LOL quips are proportionate to the EWW of West’s soul crippled Michael. Letts’ dialogue is masterful.
Even though Wheeler tosses out sardonic replies that Michael accepts as good-natured ribbing put-downs, he doesn’t bother to call Michael out for his snide and self-damaging ridiculousness. Wheeler’s silence is agreement. It indicates that what Michael expresses, Wheeler thinks. Objectifying women doesn’t make for healthy male-female relationships. Indeed, it reflects an uncontrolled sickness of the soul. Boys will be boys turns into sick men will become sicker men. By the end of Linda Vista, Letts clarifies this theme roundly.
It is this graceful attempt at “being real” to avoid being honest and sincere that entrances Jules, a date/friend that Wheeler’s friends, couple Paul (Jim True-Frost) and Margaret (Sally Murphy) set him up with. Initially, Wheeler and Jules (the superb Cora Vander Broek) get along swimmingly and, naturally, after her own “hot mess” breakup, Jules falls hard for Wheeler and is intimate with him almost immediately. Their sex scene is hysterical (Vander Broek in particular) and surprisingly on point as they both try to complete their satisfaction. It is also revealing. Wheeler apparently as a fifty-something doesn’t need Viagra. But Jules in her thirties (a peak age for women’s sexuality) “needs something” because of her emotional issues.
The twist is humorous and we begin to understand that underneath Wheeler’s “unrestrained libido” which brought him to betray his wife during an affair is a lurking fear. He needs to go deep but remains shallow and sex is an easy diversion. On the other hand Jules is authentic as she attempts her own “thing.” Clearly, they need to talk, but they don’t.
Letts’ Wheeler progresses toward some moment of epiphany by way of an episodic journey through women which he underestimates and relates to only as those he bounces across his intelligence and couples with sexually. He does not seem to perceive women as an opportunity, a ready and understanding help-meet with whom to learn and grow. Though the possibility for this occurs with Jules who encourages his photographic artistry, he eschews her attempt to go for the complicated. Conveniently, around the time that his relationship with Jules is about to take a turn into the profound, he throws her over for a twenty-something whose boyfriend dumped her and who initially needs a place to stay.
The scene where Wheeler breaks up with Jules is a cut-out of the “ending a relationship” break up scenes: the male blames himself for not being good enough for the female. This in itself is an ironic send up of the lies that human beings groove themselves into without thought or introspection. Naturally, the return cut-out appears. Jules confronts Wheeler with her suspicion that there is “another woman.” We understand that Wheeler most probably has repeated this scenario again and again before his marriage and during it. And perhaps Jules has repeated such a scene during her previous break-up. For the male, there is never another woman! However, with Wheeler (the irony of his name becomes more pronounced as Letts propels his character driven by his own blindnesses as a typical wheeler dealer in his relationships) as with other men, of course there is that other woman!
The “other woman” and unfaithfulness are the macho lines that men roll down. They must be unfaithful and encourage each other to do so. This is their ancient more, birthright, legacy, folkway; they can’t “leave home without it.” Then, what would “being male” turn into? The unthinkable, the impossible. Letts’ characterization of Wheeler slams all the tropes and to the seeing audience member, the sardonic quips that Wheeler employs schmooze him past any redemptive efforts to do the work to self-correct.
His friend Paul senses Wheeler’s avoidance and though Wheeler affirms at the top of the play he shouldn’t get involved with any woman as his divorce is being settled and he has been cut up about it, Paul ignores Wheeler. He understands his friend’s “needs” and more importantly, understands his machismo is at stake. What??? Is Wheeler going to join an Ashram and meditate to heal himself? Heaven forbid. He’ll move into the next relationship as unwhole, unhealthy and flawed as he is to once more be bowed and bloodied afterward. Perhaps Paul isn’t Wheeler’s true friend after all. Perhaps he too, like Wheeler, is blind.
Obsessed with Minnie who is pregnant and lives with him, Wheeler throws himself into her youth and off-beat, exotic, defensive curtness. Also, with hysterical “cool cat” aplomb, he gets a tattoo, wears leather and chains and limps a lot because of the “amazing” sex (too funny). Paul, without encouraging or dissuading him has massaged him with the middle age, male menopausal meme to “enjoy” your life, “you only live once,” yada yada, which is precisely what Wheeler shouldn’t embrace. His life is within and why he is placing himself in situations which will result in further self-recrimination and self-loathing makes little sense. But Letts has chosen this as Wheeler’s path, for he is the American white “everyman.” God help him!
What Wheeler seeks is not in Minnie who is the apotheosis of a “hot mess.” Nevertheless, Wheeler becomes the convenient lump of clay she molds with sex and no strings attached. What is attached becomes heightened obfuscation, confusion and depression. Minnie is the perfect object, for with her Wheeler will batter his soul to oblivion which Minnie helps him do in a particularly poignant scene. On his knees Wheeler worships his idol like an oblivious and scorned mendicant.
Ian Barford pulls out all stops emotionally in the climactic scenes with Jules and Minnie who are equally superb. Indeed, after Jules delivers a spurning I am “strong” speech to Wheeler, women in the audience applauded and cheered. That scene in particular resonated as the actors hit the emotional notes beautifully. During these scenes for the first time, we understand Wheeler’s desperation. He is not seeking forgiveness from Jules or the need to be with Minnie or any woman. In his pleadings, Wheeler is looking for the last vestiges of escape and distraction from himself. But both women close their doors. Wheeler will have to confront his aloneness and ask the hard questions without his wall of humor to hide behind. Will he be able to do the work? It’s a completely different cycle for him.
Letts has crafted a brilliant, hysterical and ironic expose of the male-female dynamic and social ethos engineered by our culture. The play hot buttons the seminal issues of the gender divide. Fear guides talented men and women toward using sex or gender as a distraction away from their core understanding of themselves. It is the key way human beings use humans as shiny objects to displace the looming inner abyss of misery and sadness. But eventually the morass of emotions rears its horrific head if individuals do not heed the storm warnings.
With memorable humor (the one liners are so incredibly, rhythmically honed to needle points that fly to their mark) nuanced characterizations and a refined episodic arc of development, the audience remains clear-eyed and engaged to note the varied themes. Letts’ good will evolves and reminds us to what is the salvation for many souls: employing the artist within each of us. Affirming that vital theme as true, I wholly applaud Linda Vista, the director-Dexter Bullard, and the moment-to-moment skills of the ensemble who have rendered this comedic, thought-provoking play into a meaningful evening of delight.
Kudos to Todd Rosenthal for his utilitarian scenic design, Laura Bauer for her costume design, Marcus Doshi for lighting design and Richard Woodbury for sound design (the irony of the jet fly-over was pointed and humorous). Linda Vista runs with one intermission at the Helen Hayes Theater on 44th Street between 7th and 8th until 10th November unless it is extended. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.