By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant
Basements, like memories, hold a lot of forgotten things, buried deep. This is especially true in Theresa Rebeck’s darkly comic “Downstairs.”
Irene (Helena Ruoti) has graciously let her brother, Teddy (Martin Giles), camp out in the basement over her suburban home, much to the chagrin of her husband Jerry (a menacing John Shepard). Teddy needs a break from his daily routine, and the dingy squalor of the suburban basement seem to make him happy (for some reason).
Irene is nervous about having her brother squat in the cellar because her husband and brother do not get along. Understatement of the Century alert!
Because Irene is a few years older, the two siblings have vastly different memories of their childhood, but they do share laughs reminiscing about the good times. Their connection has weakened since her marriage, but it begins to blossom again while he is couch-surfing downstairs.
Teddy is ill. It takes a while to figure out if his sickness is physical or mental. Irene pretends her marriage is normal – it very much isn’t, but she doesn’t seem to know what normal is either.
Irene starts to realize her brother is mentally ill. He says things that are unusual. He might be speaking in metaphor, or he might believe what he’s saying. He doesn’t care if he sounds like a whacko. He just says what comes to mind.
Jerry, however, who passes as normal – is far sicker. He hides in shadows, passes through everyday society, but deep down, he’s very troubled. Insidious, actually.
There is a battle of wills waging between the brother and the husband and Irene realizes she has to choose a side before she becomes collateral damage.
The first forty-five minutes of “Downstairs” move at the speed of molasses. However, once Jerry appears for the first time, the play picks up speed. It steamrolls to the ending. There are some major twists and revelations near the end and they are shocking. No spoilers.
Rebeck’s dialogue is sharp, crisp and full of unexpected witty moments in dour situations. Each character has a distinct voice. At one point, Irene quotes her husband, and even the words she speaks don’t sound like her own as she says them.
Giles and Ruoti have fantastic chemistry. Their rapport is so fluid and dynamic.
It takes a minute to warm up to Teddy, but Giles plays him with such charm. In Giles’s hands, Teddy is more of a lovable kook than crazy person.
Ruoti does an amazing job. Irene is a duck, trying to appear graceful on the surface, while paddling as fast as she can. A lot of lies are told in this play, but none of them compare to the lies that Irene tells herself to keep her life together.
Shepard is downright chilling as Jerry. He provokes, pushes, bullies and threatens the siblings. He is terrifying. Before November 9, 2016, I wouldn’t have believed a human being could be this self-centered, bombastic, and completely void of compassion.
Director Marc Masterson picked three of Pittsburgh’s best actors for this play.
Tony Ferrieri’s set is filled with all the prerequisite items you would find in a basement, rusted tools, a laundry sink, a dog cage and picnic basket, but there is a pervasive subterranean gloom hanging over the cavernous room.
The lighting and sound design is also impressive. Kudos to Brian Liliethal and Steve Shapiro.
Note: Limit your liquid intake, the play runs without an intermission. And it runs rather long.
While there is a satisfying conclusion to the events in this particular suburban basement, “Downstairs” is not exactly the feel-good play of the year. It is, however, thought provoking. It is also a masterclass in acting, writing and production.
“Downstairs” is upstairs at the City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15203. For more information, click here.