Playwright: Bruce Norris
At: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets: 312-335-1650; Steppenwolf.org; $20-$99. Runs through: Nov. 11
Bruce Norris either got the worst or best possible week to open his new show at Steppenwolf, depending on one's point of view.
In Downstate, now in a world premiere under Pam MacKinnon's direction, Norris puts four pedophiles in a group home south of Chicago and asks us to view sexual predators as fully dimensional human beings. Provocative? To a point. But unfortunately, Norris' imaginative skills run short when it comes to creating fully dimensional victims of sexual assault.
The first act of Downstate ( which, at two-and-a-half hours, feels overstuffed and underdeveloped simultaneously ) is mostly sharp. Norris, who started out as an actor, knows how to write dialogue that actors love to deliver and the interplay among the men is delicious and often funny.
A visit from the men's' parole officer, Ivy ( Cecilia Noble ) provides the most insight. She sympathizes with the draconian rules under which they must live. She also sympathizes with the fact that they never asked to be born with an attraction to children. Yet she has no patience for their self-pitying excuses and desire to play the victim. ( The high recidivism rates for pedophiles gets short shrift overall. )
Unfortunately, Norris makes false equivalence between their self-pity and that of the one victim we actually meet. As the play begins, Andy ( Tim Hopper ), who was molested as a child by the now-disabled Fred ( Francis Guinan ) is visiting, hoping that Fred will sign a "reconciliation contract" admitting to what he did. As is too often typical in Norris' plays, Andy's wife, Em ( Matilda Ziegler ), is a parody of a controlling yuppie.
When Andy returns alone in the second act, he becomes even uglier. Norris takes a page from David Mamet's Oleanna by suggesting that Andy's desire for confrontation comes from a "group" that he's been a part of, instead of his own need to hear his abuser own up. Hints of "false memory" are sprinkled in, courtesy of K. Todd Freeman's vivacious Dee, who also suggests that the physical abuse he suffered as a kid trumps Andy's sexual assault. And for a soupcon of easy villainy, Norris has Andy talk about how his work as a "financial advisor" is his way of paying back. If you need to create a neon sign reading "BAD PERSON," just make the character a bankster. Meantime, there are broad-as-a-barn hints as to where the story is heading.
Treating pedophiles as humans with a sick compulsion who require both legal restraints and the opportunity for redemption isn't necessarily a bad argument. But there is a whiff of self-congratulatory posturing undercutting Norris' work here, along with a mean-spirited mockery of assault victims. Thankfully, Guinan, Freeman, Hopper and Noble in particular find resonances in small quiet moments here and there. But Norris isn't being as daring as he imagines, and lazy dramaturgical shortcuts cause Downstate to grow slack by the end.