When I was a kid, one of my favorite things to do was rush home from school to catch the 4:30 movie on channel 7, the local ABC affiliate. One week would be devoted to the Planet of the Apes films, one to QB VII, and another to monster movies, but my favorite was the week that showed crazy flicks about unsettling children in unusual circumstances. Two of the most memorable were Bad Ronald, with Scott Jacoby as a boy living in a hidden room, and The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, with Jodie Foster as a girl with a secret in the basement. Theresa Rebeck’s Downstairs, a Primary Stages production continuing at the Cherry Lane through December 22, is like a grown-up version of those oddball films that left such an imprint on me and many of my generation. Real-life brother and sister Tim and Tyne Daly, in their first New York City stage appearance together, star as fictional siblings Teddy and Irene, respectively, both of whom are at least a little bit off. Teddy is experiencing some financial difficulties, so he has moved into the basement of the home Irene shares with her husband, Gerry (John Procaccino), who is none-too-happy having Teddy around. Of course, nothing good ever happens in a basement. “This is my apartment,” Teddy says to Irene, who replies, “This isn’t your apartment. This is my basement.” While Irene has been able to make a comfortable life with Gerry, Teddy seems to have nothing, and he more than hints that Irene owes him.
Teddy might have trouble concentrating (his morning routine is a riot) and his wild conspiracy theories are eyebrow-raising to say the least, but he also occasionally produces surprisingly vivid and insightful statements. “Whether or not I say it doesn’t make it true or untrue. Because sometimes it is true,” he tells Irene. Later he says to her, “First of all that is a totally solipsistic argument and second you don’t know what the fuck you are talking about.” He also spends a lot of time at an ancient computer, although Irene insists it doesn’t work. About halfway through the ninety-minute play, Gerry makes his initial appearance, to tell Teddy to leave, but Teddy is not about to walk out, and he lets Gerry know it, setting up a rather unexpected conclusion.
Downstairs unfolds in a series of primarily two-person scenes beautifully orchestrated by director Adrienne Campbell-Holt (Hatef*ck, What We’re Up Against); the audience sees the three characters in this dysfunctional family together only once. Emmy nominee Tim (Coastal Disturbances, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial) and Tony and Emmy winner Tyne (Gypsy, Mothers and Sons) have the chemistry of, well, a brother and sister who love and care about each other, playing the same; they deliver Rebeck’s (Seminar, Bernhardt/Hamlet) sharply unpredictable dialogue with a natural, rhythmic flow, while character actor extraordinaire Procaccino (Art, Nikolai and the Others) is terrific as the angry foil who forces himself between them. (Tyne actually made her professional stage debut at the Cherry Lane in 1966 in George S. Kaufman’s The Butter and Egg Man.) Narelle Sissons’s set design is as dusty and creepy as the characters, filled with items that could become dangerous at the flick of a switch. Another touchstone of my generation, Bugs Bunny, famously told Elmer Fudd in The Wabbit Who Came to Dinner, “Don’t go down there; it’s dark!” But Downstairs is one basement that is well worth visiting for 105 eerily enticing minutes.