Shocking ‘Downstate’ is the season’s best play so far

It will be hard to top the play “Downstate,” which opened Tuesday night at Playwrights Horizons, for controversy this season. Written by the fearless playwright Bruce Norris, the drama is set in a group home for sex offenders and pedophiles.

From the location alone, you already know if you’re willing to buy a ticket or not. Some will adamantly maintain that such criminals do not deserve to be the subject of any play; that the idea itself is so offensive and unpalatable that the execution doesn’t matter. They are dead wrong. 

If the world was perfectly fine with a glossy TV series about Jeffrey Dahmer, a prolific serial killer and cannibal, then it can also handle a brilliant, risky, in-your-face, far-better drama about another of society’s shadowed taboos. 

Theater review

2 hours and 30 minutes at Playwrights Horizons, <br>416 W. 42nd St.

Turn your nose up and skip it if you want to miss one of the best plays of the season.

Norris, whose other probing and unexpectedly funny show “Clybourne Park” won the Tony for Best Play in 2012, plopped his drama somewhere south of Chicago. Just as New Yorkers refer to an impossibly wide swath of diverse land as “upstate,” so too does Illinois, just in the other direction. Appropriately, the lower portion is the part of the Land of Lincoln people don’t like to talk about very much.

In this college-style apartment live four men, each wearing a GPS ankle bracelet, who have committed a sex crime. All their acts are undeniably wrong; however, they run the gamut of egregiousness. Gio (Glenn Davis), for instance, is a 30-something “Level One” offender, meaning low risk, because he slept with an underage girl who was using a fake ID. His roommates, Fred (Francis Guinan), Dee (K. Todd Freeman) and Felix (Eddie Torres, full of anguish), are “Level Threes” and are guilty of much more appalling acts.

From left to right, Dee (K. Todd Freeman), Fred (Francis Guinan), Gio (Glenn Davis) and Felix (Eddie Torres) are sex offenders who live in a group home.
From left to right, Dee (K. Todd Freeman), Fred (Francis Guinan), Gio (Glenn Davis) and Felix (Eddie Torres) are sex offenders who live in a group home and are visited by parole officer Ivy (Susanna Guzmán).
Joan Marcus

Some, including elderly Fred, who uses a motor scooter, claim to be ashamed of what they did. Others, such as Dee, insist they did nothing wrong. 

What sets the play in motion is the visit of Andy (Tim Hopper), a now-adult victim of Fred’s when he was his young piano student, with his wife Em (Sally Murphy) to confront the man who’s in his 70s. 

Andy thinks the tense meeting will be cathartic and triumphant, like a climactic trial scene out of a movie, and close out a painful chapter of his life. He prepared an eviscerating statement he wants Fred to sign. But Fred won’t do it. Nothing changes for the better, and a messy new chapter begins.

Andy (Tim Hopper, right) and wife Em (Sally Murphy) confront Andy's abuser from when he was a child.
Andy (Tim Hopper) and wife Em (Sally Murphy) confront Andy’s abuser from when he was a child.
Joan Marcus

We mainly learn about the men’s circumstances through visits from their hardened parole officer, Ivy (Susanna Guzmán, neighborly yet stern), who checks in and interviews them. Over this one day, explosive events happen — violent both verbally and physically. By the end, though, we realize what’s shocking to us is normal for them. There have been other days like this and there will be more.  

Norris has written a complex and compassionate play, but not a preachy or judgmental one. The audience is never pushed to forgive or condemn, but rather to evaluate. Some past events we learn about are clear-cut horrific, while others are more layered. The punishment, to these characters’ fury, is equal.

Director Pam MacKinnon’s production, from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company, is simple and Todd Rosenthal’s set is one of those gray-carpet, fluorescently lit apartments that people hastily move into during a divorce. The focus here is squarely on the acting.

Francis Guinan, left, and K. Todd Freeman are doing some of the best work of their careers.
Francis Guinan, left, and K. Todd Freeman are doing some of the best work of their careers.
Joan Marcus

Freeman as Dee is defiant, logical and forceful, as though he’s carefully crafted his talking points in his head for decades, and then wickedly funny out of nowhere. The actor is doing the best work of his long career. Fred, meanwhile, plays up Guinan’s ability to be simultaneously gentle and threatening.

Hopper has the hardest job here. Andy is not a particularly embraceable character, with Norris seeming to say just because you’re a victim doesn’t make you inherently likable. Hopper has Andy shake, sputter and shout and the character makes choices that, although understandable, are futile and will inevitably blow up. “Just go home,” we silently implore him over and over.  

Few plays as invigorating as “Downstate” will come along this season, and I’m sure, a potential Broadway move is being discussed. And yes, the extraordinary work deserves one. But the best choice would be to stay put where it is. Broadway, sadly, has become a place where acclaimed off-Broadway shows go to die. Despite heaps of acclaim and buzz, they just can’t find a robust audience anymore. Great works such as Norris’ should bow out with packed houses and their heads held high — not plastered on discount ticket fliers in Times Square puddles.