In rendering a verdict on Bruce Norris’s Downstate, let’s consider its functions. As an acting showcase, the play is exactly what you’d hope for in a coproduction of Steppenwolf and the U.K.’s National Theatre. As a generator of uncomfortable laughs and an occasional knowing “hmm,” it does fine. But as an effort to say something, it’s mostly a dud. The provocative Norris, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Clybourne Park, writes great dialogue, but his moralizing is so strangely counterweighted that it goes wildly off course.
Directed by Pam MacKinnon, the play concerns four convicted pedophiles in a group home in downstate Illinois: the amiable, wheelchair-bound Fred (Francis Guinan); the nervous bible-spouting Felix (Eddie Torres); the sultry and quick-witted Dee (K. Todd Freeman); and the hot-headed statutory offender Gio (Glenn Davis). Todd Rosenthal’s photorealistically drab set is like a long, rectangular terrarium, with ceilings to seal off any chance of escape.
Gifted with the best lines and the least shame, Freeman’s Dee is the most charming of the bunch, while Guinan’s Fred is so guileless—his favorite phrase is “oh golly”—that he’s almost impossible not to like. But not for everyone: Downstate begins with one of Fred’s victims, Andy (Tim Hopper), trying to finally confront him. After beating a hasty retreat and leaving his phone behind, Andy returns in Act Two to finish his quest for justice, this time without his smarmy wife (Matilda Ziegler, doing what she can with