Review: In Scathing ‘Downstate,’ Sympathy for the Devils

Theater

Em (Matilda Ziegler) is in some ways harsher, egging on Andy’s revenge fantasies and bullying him to take “ownership” of his feelings. She sees confronting Fred as an act of civic bravery akin to that of the women now accusing their harassers during what she calls this “amazing historical moment.”

She is not an outlier in her unabating hostility. Soon after she and Andy leave, Ivy, the men’s parole officer, breaks the news that they will no longer be able to shop at the local IGA because it falls within the recently expanded forbidden zone surrounding a school. As the constraints around the men tighten — they already wear ankle monitors and are forbidden smartphones and access to the internet — you can feel Mr. Norris winding them a noose.

But in “Downstate” he is winding a lot of nooses. Perps, police and victims’ recovery groups all get theirs. And whenever the victims are scathed sufficiently he turns his attention back to the pedophiles — who, after all, as Ivy (Cecilia Noble) says, see themselves as victims too. Their anguishes are likewise balanced, so you never know where to land your sympathy.

That is a risky proposition at a time when questioning the victim is impermissible, at least outside the theater. Seeing “Downstate” two days after Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh testified before the Senate, I worried that Mr. Norris might be asking too much of audiences electrified by the #MeToo movement. The play depends on our drawing fine distinctions between different kinds of sex crimes and between different kinds of perpetrators. Though men who prey on adult women have rarely before now been punished, for instance, the men in the group home, having preyed on children, have been punished repeatedly. Are their prison terms not enough?

Would anything be enough?

These are not funny questions, and “Downstate,” though at times uproarious, is not a comedy of horrors like Mr. Norris’s “Clybourne Park” and “Domesticated.” It is far too grave for that, making it in some ways his most serious, successful and difficult work.

The difficulties — of tone and pacing and characterization — are for the most part masterfully handled in Pam McKinnon’s staging, which keeps its balance not by staying close to the middle but by swinging with confidence, and even swagger, to the extremes of feeling. Even where the script seems to falter (an intended surprise near the end is not much of one) the production never does.

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