"Downstairs" at Actor’s Express, November 6, 2019 - December 1, 2019
Theresa Rebeck’s "Downstairs" is too long to sit through without an intermission. There are too many silent scenes and such a lot of talking with no payoff that sitting through it becomes a chore. We see a woman chatting with her younger brother, who is living temporarily in the basement of the house she shares with her husband. The husband wants the brother out, and the woman always acquiesces to her husband. After a LOT of reminiscences about their childhood with an abusive mother and possibly psychotic revelations from the brother, we meet the husband. Voices are raised. The brother leaves. Through something or other found on a basement computer, the husband gets his comeuppance and the brother returns. The end.
In the Actor’s Express production, the set by Isabel A. Curley-Clay and Moriah Curley-Clay certainly looks like a basement, with its joists overhead and dingy discards shoved into shelfing units. A washer and dryer stage right suggest some ongoing life to the space, and a folding table with a coffee maker hints that someone is residing in the basement. Neglect is indicated by a workbench and pegboard wall with tools upstage left and a folding table down left with broken-down computer equipment. Basement windows coated in grime also suggest neglect. Not everything seems to make architectural sense, though: the cement block wall takes a turn on the near side of the stairwell, and there’s a door (obscured by shelving units) upstage center between two basement windows on high. Electrical wires snaking across the joist ceiling don’t seem to attach to anything.
Props by Kathleen Ellsworth populate the basement, augmented during the action by foodstuffs, including two German chocolate cakes. The props are impressive. Costumes, by April Andrew, are modern-day and appropriate to the script. Ben Rawson’s lighting design suggests changing time, although the basement windows always seem illuminated.
Chris Lane’s sound design is excellent. A delightful touch is having the pre-show 60’s pop music seem to emanate from a clock radio on the workbench. Music between scenes is appropriately ominous to suit the thriller that this play purports to be.
Is it a thriller? I wouldn’t say so. It’s all build-up and letdown. William S. Murphey is a complete villain in the piece, and the character has a complete lack of nuance. He shows up late, fulfills all the dastardly things we’ve heard of him, and in the final scene we’re told he pays for his misdeeds.
At least Mr. Murphey is not miscast, although his range as an actor is hardly on display. Mary Lynn Owen plays his wife, and she appears 30 years older than her supposed brother, played by Travis Smith, although the two aren’t supposed to be more than a decade different in age. Her lank brown wig doesn’t disguise her age, and she has been directed by Donya K. Washington to burst into laughter on many occasions, and it rarely rings true. Mr. Smith is wasted in the role of Teddy, playing a possibly delusional near-deadbeat with sincerity, but with not a bit of menace.
"Downstairs" acts as a marginally interesting domestic drama highlighting a rapprochement between brother and sister. We never learn the full truth of all the sensationalistic content that’s broached during the course of the play, so the revelations expected in a thriller are missing. Is it okay? Yes. Is it more than that? A definite "no."