Teddy and Irene are brother and sister, well into their middle-age, and he has just taken up an uninvited residence in her basement. Teddy doesn’t think it’s really her basement, since Irene bought the house with money from their mother’s will, which made no mention of him. Irene disagrees about the ownership, but sometimes refers to it as her husband Gerry’s house and basement. She’s that kind of a faithful stay-at-home wife. In his complaints and disappointments, Teddy is as unstable as Irene is grounded in her concern for him. And while his dreams for the future are completely delusional, she has the distinct advantage survival-wise of having stopped dreaming long ago. They don’t have much in common, but they do share a few demons.
Presented by Primary Stages, Theresa Rebeck’s new play “Downstairs” opened Sunday at the Cherry Lane Theatre, and it’s a very exceptional thriller — one that’s distinguished, in part, because you don’t know it’s a thriller until Rebeck and director Adrienne Campbell-Holt send out their first shock wave a good hour into this 105-minute drama. The very gentle battle between Teddy and Irene is an extremely shaggy dog, and may leave you wondering where the story is going. This sister and brother keep repeating themselves with small recriminations and ineffectual prods to get a job, but along the way, Teddy and Irene always get back to talking about Mother and Gerry. The difference is, Mother is dead and Gerry’s upstairs.
Tyne Daly and Tim Daly are real-life sister and brother, and one of the small miracles of “Downstairs” is that they make the case for how very different two people can be and still be siblings. In the first half of “Downstairs,” Tyne Daly takes a few trips down the very steep staircase that dominates Narelle Sissons’ appropriately dingy basement set. Sarah Laux’s costumes put the actress in schlumpy dresses that expose her legs but carefully cover the knees. Irene doesn’t possess much style, but she knows instinctively how to keep her footstep light and unassuming. And so it is a genuine shock when, finally, another pair of legs makes its fateful way down that suddenly treacherous staircase.
Has two or three steps up or down a staircase ever provoked such a gasp from the audience? Hitchcock did it in “Psycho” and “The Birds.” Rebeck and Campbell-Holt do it with “Downstairs.”
When John Procaccino’s Gerry opens his mouth to welcome Irene’s brother to his house, Teddy has already been living down there a full week. Procaccino fully delivers in the long set-up that is the deceptively loose first half of “Downstairs.”
Minus absolutely any sexual frisson, what Rebeck creates here between the brutish Gerry and the flighty Teddy is, effectively, Stanley Kowalski telling Blanche DuBois to get out. Gerry is arguably a little less nice than Stanley — after all, Blanche takes up residence for a full five months — and he provides his brother-in-law with no bus ticket to help facilitate the exit. After Gerry’s first appearance, Campbell-Holt effectively renders a few dialogue-less mini-scenes that, enhanced by Michael Giannitti’s lighting and M.L. Dogg’s sound design, add to the growing menace. But much more frightening is the way all three characters use what they’ve told each other in confidence to make it two against one. Rebeck purposefully keeps us in the dark about who’s telling the truth here. In the end, we’re sure of only one thing: the demons continue to live downstairs.