Bruce Norris could have weighted the theatrical playing field slightly more. He could have written a play about a recovery house for MAGA Republicans who are election deniers. Instead, he has written a play about sex offenders. Norris’s play “Downstate” opened Tuesday at Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons after productions at Chicago’s Steppenwolf and London’s National Theatre.
“Downstate” takes place in a church-run residence for sex offenders who live in a house that is continually being vandalized. Those concerned (often violent) neighbors have also joined forces to expand the safety-zone perimeter around a local school that will have the effect of restricting even further the mobility, not to mention the grocery-shopping habits, of these four men convicted of sex crimes against minors. The warning about the new law comes courtesy of Ivy (Susanna Guzman), a case worker who shows little sympathy for her charges. These four men are only a fraction of the criminals she visits and surveils on a regular basis. Ivy never bothers even to waste a breath before hitting back whenever the men complain about their radically restricted life. It’s one woman against four men, but Ivy has the law on her side and she wears it like an AR-45 bulletproof body armor.
Norris also uses Ivy’s status in the legal system to toy with our sympathies. With the precision of a metronome, this playwright’s exposition drops one fact after another regarding just how little freedom these men retain after serving considerable prison sentences. No cellphones, no internet access, no credit cards, no female visitors, no alcohol — the list is itemized, each restriction methodically spaced and delivered throughout the two hours and 30 minutes of this two-act play. Somewhere in the second act, the police monitor wrapped around their ankles becomes the least of these men’s problems.
Act 1 hits an early climax when Ivy sits down to talk with one of those sex offenders. Felix (Eddie Torres) wants to cross state lines to visit his dying sister, but he seriously jeopardizes that needed permission by visiting the local library to go online to look at his teenage daughter’s Facebook page on her birthday. Torres takes the soap opera of Felix’s life and turns it into real tragedy. In the light of his very dramatic performance, there’s seemingly nothing good about Guzman’s portrayal of a bad cop.
Norris not only knows how to construct a play, he also knows how to write a devastating one-liner, and the one he gives Ivy to eviscerate Felix’s life story is a nuclear. It’s nice to report that Ivy’s response to Felix — something about her husband’s love for his golden retriever – will not be the last time in “Downtown” that a fiery retort scorches the uneven playing field. Norris is an equal-opportunity playwright, however. The sex offenders get more than their share of verbal bombs.
Ivy’s visit to the house — Norris quickly teaches us not to call it a “home” — is far less fraught than visits from Andy (Tim Hopper) and Em (Sally Murphy), the married couple who show up to confront the old wheelchair-bound Fred (Francis Guinan). In his adolescence, Andy was sexually abused by Fred, his piano teacher, and so much psychological damage remains that his wife appears only slightly less traumatized by those harrowing episodes than the victim himself.
Contrary to what would be expected, this “talk” between Andy, Em and Fred remains uncommonly civilized, and for a couple of reasons. Fred is never less than receptive to what Andy and Em tell him. While the wheelchair as a sympathy prop helps, Guinan doesn’t need it. This actor quickly emerges as everyone’s favorite teacher/uncle/priest, a role Guinan works like a big ball of wax to dull the thornier aspects of his character’s past behavior. Norris also lightens the moment with extraordinary humor, most of it delivered through cellphone interruptions and numerous bathroom breaks from Fred’s housemates.
That’s the first confrontation. In Andy’s second and far more brutal talk with his erstwhile assailant, a third inmate, the flamboyant Dee (K. Todd Freeman) emerges as Fred’s vocal defender. The writing and the performances meld here to create one of those rare extended moments in the theater. What transpires is so personal, so painful that you may find yourself feeling guilty for chronic eavesdropping. By far the smartest guy in the house, Dee can twist logic to make sense of his every desire, and with the precision of an expert armsman, he comes way too close to exposing what may be Andy’s real motive for his visits to this particular house. Norris never stops messing with an audience’s expectations.
The actor Glenn Davis completes the quartet of doomed sex offenders. Playing Gio, a gung-ho entrepreneur who earned himself a degree in business while in prison, Davis brims with optimistic bravado in a place (and a play) that’s in sore need of it. Although he is the one most likely to escape this neighborhood prison, Norris has a cunning way of turning every character’s asset into a liability, and vice versa.
The showier aspects of “Downstate” — the humorous interruptions that plague Andy’s initial confrontation with Fred or the complaints of foul odors that run throughout Act 2 — are rendered less obvious through Pam Mackinnon’s direction. Mackinnon is the kind of self-effacing director who removes all signs of her own work, except for the final result: great performances in an equally great play.