By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
Theresa Rebeck has been working the playwriting beat since the early 1990s, averaging about a play a year. She’s written movies and books too, but may be best known for the time she stepped away from the theater to write about the theater in the now-legendary television flop Smash, a show about the creation of a Broadway musical.
Rebeck’s certainly no one to let a couple of bad reviews get in her way and so it was back to reanimating her prolific theatrical output. A couple of years ago she was working with her friend Tim Daly and he suggested she write a play he could perform with his sister Tyne. So in 2017 the brother and sister premiered Rebeck’s Downstairs, a play about a brother and sister and their wacky hijinks.
Downstairs continues through February 2. City Theatre, South Side. 412-431-CITY. citytheatrecompany.org
City Theatre presents Downstairs in a production directed by Marc Masterson, with yet another amazing set design from Tony Ferrieri, ingeniously lit by designer Brian Lilienthal.
More about the set; The play takes place in the basement of a house that isn’t necessarily in Pittsburgh, but just about everybody seated around me was talking about how their basement, or that of a friend, looks exactly like the high-windowed, ridiculously over-cluttered, unfinished room onstage. The woman directly behind me said: “Too bad they don’t have a toilet.” And we all learned the joke was on her when the play began and one of the characters pushed aside a shower curtain to reveal the toilet he was just sitting on.
If I seem to be going on about this set it’s because Downstairs is a two-hour intermissionless play and on more than one occasion you do wander a bit to all the stuff stuffing the stage.
And that’s maybe a description of Rebeck’s play as well; she’s certainly shoved a whole bunch of, well, stuff, into the work.
Downstairs is really two plays – the first half is brother and sister Teddy and Irene. The basement is part of the house owned by Irene and her husband Gerry. Teddy, apparently, showed up a few days ago and is sleeping on a couch. Irene is trying to get him to leave since Gerry doesn’t want him there. But Teddy has, let’s say, behavioral health challenges and Irene feels guilty. The two were raised by a nightmare of a mother and, back then, Irene took care of the younger Teddy.
Or maybe she didn’t.
Or maybe she did, then didn’t, then did.
Rebeck’s writing is absolutely maddening in this first part. Between the two of them Teddy and Irene share a catalogue of hideous secrets about a horrible past they spend an hour coyly hinting at. Neither possess the ability to finish a sentence and Rebeck seems to believe the way to keep an audience involved is to omit plot. It all feels remarkable constructed and painfully artificial.
Helena Ruoti and Martin Giles are Irene and Teddy. Masterson keeps both on task and each has enough talent to play such uninvolving characters without breaking a sweat.
Perhaps too much talent. Maybe it’s because of the show’s genesis, but these roles are very “actor-y.” Like Teddy, Irene has more than a few mental health issues and the temptation for both actors to go hog wild with showy technique must be overwhelming – fortunately Masterson works with them to keep it to a minimum.
And then all of sudden Rebeck gets as fed up with the play as the audience is and tries something else. Gerry comes down into the basement to get rid of Teddy and brings with him enough melodrama to drag Puccini back from the dead; the only thing he’s missing is a tiki torch. John Shepard plays Gerry and believe me, when an actor of his ability plays evil … it stays played!
At this point Downstairs turns into a suspense drama that’s not particularly either. And then the whole thing wraps it up with a scene that … well, let’s just leave it there.
From what I can tell the jury’s still out on whether Downstairs is going to have much of a life moving forward … but here’s the thing about a Rebeck play, there’s always another one just around the corner.