The four men who live together in Downstate, Bruce Norris’s new play, are—for the most part—likable. Endearing, even. Fred (played in the National Theatre’s current production in London by Francis Guinan), a septuagenarian piano teacher in an electric wheelchair, is amiable, folksy, and seemingly naive (he’s described in the play’s text as “not unlike Fred Rogers”). Dee (K. Todd Freeman), who’s a former choreographer in his 60s, is droll and theatrical, but has a gentle manner when he helps take care of Fred. Felix (Eddie Torres), a mechanic in his 40s, is quiet and unassuming. Gio (Glenn Davis), the 30-something loudmouth of the group, is the most grating, sniping at the others and asserting his own superiority, but there’s something poignant about the fact that he’s trying to teach the isolated Felix to play bridge.
None of this is accidental. Norris, who’s structured this play as deliberately and meticulously as his Pulitzer Prize–winning Clybourne Park, wants audiences to like these men, to sympathize with them, to connect with their prosaic rituals and petty squabbles, before he exposes the fullness of what they’ve done.
There are hints, though. Downstate is very much a play of its time, both artistically (it twice refers elliptically to “a kind of reckoning” going on) and practically, meaning that there are trigger warnings before people buy tickets and more warnings as they enter the theater. “Downstate,” the National’s website states, “discusses and contains graphic descriptions of child abuse and rape.” These four men aren’t living together in an odd-couple quadrant because they’ve chosen to do so. They’re living together because society has deemed them too offensive, too dangerous, to live anywhere else.