The shocking “Downstate” is the best track of the season so far

It’ll be hard to top the play “Downstate,” which opened Tuesday night at Playwrights Horizons, for controversy this season. Written by fearless playwright Bruce Norris, the drama is set in a residential group for sex offenders and pedophiles.

At the location alone you already know whether you are ready to buy a ticket or not. Some will adamantly claim that such criminals do not deserve to be the subject of a play; that the idea itself is so offensive and uncomfortable that the execution doesn’t matter. You are absolutely wrong.

If the world was perfectly fine with a glossy TV series about Jeffrey Dahmer, a prolific serial killer and cannibal, then it can also handle a brilliant, risky, intrusive, far better drama about another of society’s shadowy taboos.

theater criticism

2 hours and 30 minutes at Playwrights Horizons,
416 W. 42nd St.

Wrinkle your nose and skip it if you want to miss one of the best games of the season.

Norris, whose other inquiring and unexpectedly funny show Clybourne Park won the 2012 Tony for Best Play, dropped his drama somewhere south of Chicago. Just as New Yorkers refer to an incredibly wide swath of diverse land as an “upstate,” so does Illinois, just in the opposite direction. Appropriately, the lower part is the part of Lincoln country that people don’t like to talk about.

Four men live in this college-style apartment, each wearing a GPS ankle tag and having committed a sex crime. All their deeds are undeniably wrong; They do, however, cover the breadth of monstrosity. Gio (Glenn Davis), for example, is a 30-year-old “level one” offender, meaning low risk, for sleeping with an underage girl who used a fake ID. His roommates Fred (Francis Guinan), Dee (K. Todd Freeman) and Felix (Eddie Torres, in agony) are “Level Three” and guilty of far more horrifying crimes.

Left to right are Dee (K. Todd Freeman), Fred (Francis Guinan), Gio (Glenn Davis) and Felix (Eddie Torres) cohabiting sex offenders.
Left to right: Dee (K. Todd Freeman), Fred (Francis Guinan), Gio (Glenn Davis) and Felix (Eddie Torres) are sex offenders who live in a dorm and are visited by probation officer Ivy (Susanna Guzmán). .
Johanna Marcus

Some, including older Fred, who uses a scooter, claim to be ashamed of what they have done. Others, like Dee, insist they did nothing wrong.

What sets the play in motion is the visit of Andy (Tim Hopper), a now adult victim of Fred’s when he was his young piano student, with his wife Em (Sally Murphy) to confront the man in his 70s.

Andy believes the tense meeting will be cathartic and triumphant, like a courtroom scene in a movie, and will close a painful chapter in his life. He’s prepared a gutting statement for Fred to sign. But Fred won’t do it. Nothing changes for the better and a chaotic new chapter begins.

Andy (Tim Hopper, right) and his wife Em (Sally Murphy) confront Andy's childhood abuser.
Andy (Tim Hopper) and his wife Em (Sally Murphy) confront Andy’s childhood abusers.
Johanna Marcus

We learn of the men’s situation primarily through visits from their hard-nosed probation officer, Ivy (Susanna Guzmán, neighborly but strict), who checks in and interviews them. Explosive events take place on this one day – both verbally and physically. However, in the end we realize that what shocks us is normal for them. There have been other days like this and there will be more.

Norris wrote a complex and compassionate piece, but not a preachy or judgmental one. The audience is never pushed to forgive or judge, but rather to judge. Some past events we learn about are clearly horrific, while others are more complex. The punishment is equal to the anger of these characters.

Directed by director Pam MacKinnon of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company, the staging is simple, and Todd Rosenthal’s set is one of those gray-carpeted, fluorescent-lit apartments people rush into during a divorce. The focus here is clearly on the acting.

Francis Guinan, left, and K. Todd Freeman produce some of the best work of their careers.
Francis Guinan, left, and K. Todd Freeman produce some of the best work of their careers.
Johanna Marcus

Freeman as Dee is defiant, logical, and energetic, as if he’s carefully worked out his talking points in his head for decades, and then out of nowhere wickedly funny. The actor is doing the best work of his long career. Meanwhile, Fred plays up Guinan’s ability to be both gentle and menacing at the same time.

Hopper has the hardest job around here. Andy isn’t a particularly affable character, and Norris seems to say just because you’re a victim doesn’t make you inherently likable. Hopper makes Andy tremble, stutter, and scream, and the character makes choices that, while understandable, are futile and will inevitably blow up. “Just go home,” we beg him silently over and over again.

Few plays as invigorating as Downstate will appear this season, and I’m sure a possible move to Broadway will be discussed. And yes, the extraordinary work deserves one. But the best choice would be to stay where it is. Unfortunately, Broadway has become a place where acclaimed Off-Broadway shows die. Despite a lot of applause and enthusiasm, they just don’t find a strong audience anymore. Great works like Norris’s should go away with crowded houses and heads held high – not on discount-ticket pamphlets in puddles in Times Square. The shocking “Downstate” is the best track of the season so far

Emma Bowman

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