Directed with striking clarity and command by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, “Downstairs” is a well-constructed play of whipsaw moods that have much to do with Teddy’s instability — a restless volatility that Mr. Daly struggles to embody in a performance that is the production’s most amusing yet least convincing. But this is ultimately a kind of horror story, and in its second half we understand that the danger has been lurking in the house all along.
What Ms. Rebeck is exploring here is the struggle between good and evil, and the tendency of decent people with honorable intentions to doubt their own perceptions when what they perceive is too sinister to seem plausible.
“Downstairs” is about the realization that horrific actions that might have seemed solely the province of scary movies, or paranoid delusions, can be perpetrated by people in your life — perhaps against you and the ones you love. So it goes for Irene, anyway.
Ms. Rebeck and Ms. Campbell-Holt are politically minded artists, and there is a larger social point in all this. It’s not just about domestic abuse (though it is about that) or looking after the most vulnerable among us (though it’s about that, too). It’s about shaking off willful naïveté and confronting menace instead of allowing it to determine how we live.
If that sounds heavy-handed, it’s actually quite entertaining, all the more so when Gerry makes his entrance halfway through the intermissionless performance. A gray-haired suburban thug, he descends into the basement, and the play instantly thrums with tension, becoming the kind of show where it seemed perfectly natural that the young woman next to me started whispering urgent instructions to the characters, as if she were watching them on T.V.
Mr. Procaccino’s Gerry is a magnificent villain — belligerent, dangerous and so habitually, casually vicious that he chews on a nail as he gives Irene a devastating, off-the-cuff list of reasons he married her. When one of them is “You’re pretty,” it’s a little bit heartbreaking to see her blatant need as she asks, “You think I’m pretty?”
“Pretty enough,” he says.
But by then she has already realized something crucial about the ties that bind us to one another. Some deserve strengthening. Others must be severed for dear life.