The publicity for Downstairs, which opened at the Dorset (VT) Theatre Festival in June, gives rather short shrift to the fact that it’s a world premiere by the prolific Theresa Rebeck, whose plays Bad Dates and Mauritius are also being produced in the region this summer (at Shakespeare & Company and Oldcastle Theatre, respectively). Most of the attention has been showered on another first: Tyne Daly and her brother, Tim Daly, starring together onstage.
Which is fitting, since for me, that pairing is the most compelling aspect of the production.
Both Dalys are better known to the world at large for their work in television rather than theater, though Tyne has followed up her career-making run as half of Cagney and Lacey with a string of stage successes, including her Tony-winning turn in Gypsy. Tim has often used the summer hiatus from series TV to step onstage. He’s previously appeared at Dorset, for instance, in Rebeck’s The Scene and John Logan’s Red.
Here, the siblings are playing siblings — no great surprise since the piece was written for them — but both of them are in roles that work against the “types” that persist in the public mind. We may think of Tyne as brassy Mama Rose or imperious Maria Callas, and Tim as the suave, handsome leading man (he currently plays Téa Leone’s professor husband in CBS’s Madam Secretary). In Downstairs, however, Tyne is a mouse and Tim is bonkers.
The downstairs of the title is the basement of Irene and Jerry’s house, where Irene’s brother Teddy has taken up temporary residence, sleeping on an old couch beside a shaky milk-crate table. (Narelle Sissons’ set is a dusty expanse of half-framed walls, scattered tools and dingy corners, starkly lit by Michael Giannitti.)
Teddy is troubled and troubling. He may or may not have a job — in an undefined office, where people are trying to poison him — and he nurses fantasies of a secret, earthshaking business plan. But he’s clearheaded in his reading of his sister’s husband Gerry, a nasty, domineering bully.
We don’t meet Gerry — the excellent John Procaccino — till halfway through the play’s intermission-less two hours. Until then, we’re in the tense but tender company of the middle-aged sister and brother, both of them damaged by life and circumstance. Rebeck’s script meanders a bit, too often feeling like a first draft, writing her way into the characters. But in the Dalys’ mesmerizing twin performances, we’re drawn into the siblings’ history and deep connection, which gains texture from the actors’ own.
Tim’s Teddy has a lost, hunted look, subterreanean panic simmering even in moments of clarity. Tyne’s Irene is a woman whose core impulse is to make everything okay — with her unsteady kid brother and within her loveless marriage. In this finely detailed portrait, she becomes physically small, vocally timorous and facially haunted — until things get scary and Irene finds her strength, her voice, and a weapon.
Things get scary as soon as Gerry enters. As we quickly see, he’s not simply the impatient in-law wanting the freeloader out of his house, but much more, and much worse. Procaccino’s unapologetic air of menace and, yes, evil (Teddy says Gerry has “a demon inside him”) gives the play’s final third a convincing propulsion. The character is drawn too broadly, the plot’s sudden turn is too melodramatic, and the resolution is too neat, though there’s a final brother/sister moment that is both sweet and tentative.
At the end of the first week of performances (Downstairs runs through July 8th) the actors were still finding their way around Rebeck’s imperfect script and exploring their characters’ complex relationships. And I trust they’ll continue to do so, with increasing confidence, throughout the run. After all, that’s what sets live theater apart from TV.
Downstairs: Thursday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m., with an additional show at 2 p.m. on Saturday. $42. Dorset Theatre Festival, 104 Cheney Road, Dorset, Vermont. (802) 867-2223, ext. 2; dorsettheatrefestival.org.
Contact Chris Rohmann at firstname.lastname@example.org.