Life has been particularly challenging for the Lisowskis of Buffalo. After the death of his wife, aging father and husband Miles (a splendid, understated Don Walker), is a lost soul. He’s barely hanging on to his job as a funeral home custodian. He fills his free time at the kitchen table listening to his transistor radio with coffee cup after cup of whiskey on an alcoholic marathon. The highlight of his half blind, agoraphobic daughter’s day is dictating random thoughts into a cassette tape for Louis, her drug lord penpal who in this case is actually serving time in the pen. The family home is in complete disrepair; piles of junk block the stairway to the upstairs bedrooms rendering the entire floor uninhabitable. The power is off and the contents of the refrigerator have spoiled. This is the stuff of soul-crushing drama à la Eugene O’Neill—except Natalie Symons’ “The People Downstairs” is an uproarious, endearing laugh-a-minute dark comedy.
The People Downstairs
A world premiere by Natalie Symons
American Stage, 163 3rd Street North, St. Petersburg
Tickets: $44. Through Oct. 3
Symons has the same kind of gift as Pulitzer Prize winner Beth Henley (“Crimes of the Heart”) who mines her quirky characters for both pathos and humor. The fact that both the playwright and director Chris Crawford are accomplished actors shows through in the performances of the uniformly splendid cast. You lose yourself in these eccentric misfits and forget they’re Symons’s creations.
Symons put some zingers in the mouths of her characters (“I blame menopause for the horror show that came later,”) but director Crawford and his crackerjack cast also mine the script for physical humor and moments where the audience chortles, snorts, guffaws, or just plain laughs out loud. Maybe it’s the post-COVID release of sharing a play live and in person, but even with masks and socially distant seating, I can’t remember an opening night audience having so much fun. Indeed, the play’s themes of familial love and the search for human connection resonate ever more strongly post lockdown.
Through his alcoholic stupor, Miles nurses two obsessions. He harbors the pipe dream of his 9-and-a-half-episode biographical teleplay (where he’s portrayed by Robert De Niro) being picked up by Amazon Prime despite a Netflix rejection. In addition, Miles is desperate to fix up his middle-aged daughter, “mad Mabel” (the marvelously demented Sara Oliva) with someone, anyone. His chosen paramour is Todd Schneider, a new inept mortician with a sunny disposition. Unfortunately, Todd (an utterly winning Matthew McGee) is a mama’s boy who never misses a chance to share a mother-son early bird special at the Golden Corral all-you-can-eat buffet. He’s an aspiring writer until he discovers that “playwriting is even more unpleasant than embalming.”
The ghosts of the isolated family—whose faded photos line the walls haunting the action—are brought vividly to life by Symons’ incisive descriptions of Rose, the late wife and mother, whose peripatetic cremains prove a springboard for several comedic misadventures, a gasp worthy incident and a surprise denouement. And an overarching character whose personality dominates much of the action is the long dead Big-Pop, whose ashes reside under the TV. Even though her issue is poor vision, Mabel spends her few waking hours in old “Big-Pop’s” wheelchair as if it were some hallowed family throne. The many descriptions worthy of Kaufman and Hart convince you that you’re in his house where he managed to live upstairs.
Just when it seems that there may be a path forward, Symons ends Act I with a shocking event that upends the whole balance of the story.
Shelley Williams (Seattle’s commanding Teri Lazzara) as Miles’ court-appointed guardian, is not a nurturing presence; she wants the Lisowskis to abandon the family house and take up residence at Elderwood nursing home, where Miles has honed his burgeoning comedy act but admits that all they really get excited about there is “really good soup.” It seems that following Rose’s death, with Miles’ erratic behavior, “the court doesn’t think you are capable.” Shelley is not exactly what she seems, but Mabel later forgives Shelley’s questionable choices. “It’s just sorrow.”
Symons has still not been discovered by Broadway, but American Stage has given her a world premiere production worthy of the “Great White Way.” Set designer Scott Cooper, in particular, has created such a complete environment on a grand scale that it’s hard to imagine that an infusion of NYC cash could improve upon his design. Not that it’s particularly inviting. The peeling wallpaper, indeed the whole interior, is “the color of old pennies.” And the ever clever, Jerid Fox, has filled the design with revelatory stuff, from a multi-hued striped afghan, to the milk crate coffee table, to a diminutive garden gnome that’s obviously a treasured artifact.
Catherine Cann’s costumes nail each characters’ emotional state as does Chris Baldwin’s evocative lighting which reflects a hoarder’s despair, as well as the anticipatory joy from an unexpected emotional connection which leaves the audience with a tender sigh. And even though I’m sadly disconnected from her playlists, sound designer Rachel Harrison’s evocative music combines with Baldwin’s sweeping moving lights scene changes to hint at what’s to come.
There’s a second act complication right out of a Judd Apatow film that seems insurmountable, but Mabel realizes that she and Todd share “the same kind of loneliness.” The play comes full circle with a heartwarming denouement. It reminds us that even through what Symons calls “the distorted lens” of social media, all we really want is to be seen and not forgotten. But as much as this haunting play channels the power of love and kindness, it’s keeping a sense of humor that helps get us and the characters through. Mabel wisely concludes “If you take away laughter, you take away life.”
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