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ROSEN’S REVIEW: K. Todd Freeman shines in Downstate at Playwrights Horizons

The bold, moving and controversial play from Bruce Norris closes Jan. 7

January 5, 2023 Evan Rosen
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It’s a new year but there’s still a couple days left to catch one of the best plays of 2022. After causing a significant hubbub through the Off-Broadway channels, Downstate was initially extended through Dec. 22. But the people of New York City can’t seem to get enough of this dark tragicomedy examining the lives of four sexual offenders grappling with life post-incarceration.

Playwright Bruce Norris, who won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for his 2011 play Clybourne Park, gives us here a work that is almost overflowing with humanity. Deftly crafted and bolstered by the direction of Pam MacKinnon (who worked with Norris on Clybourne Park and received an Obie Award for her direction), the play dares to ask audiences to sympathize with the group of ex-cons. And at a time when much of our country’s political landscape involves weaponizing or demonizing pedophilia and sexual impropriety, the play feels almost like a rebellious act.

Eddie Torres and K. Todd Freeman in Downstate at Playwrights Horizon’s. Photo: Joan Marcus

I recently got a chance to talk with the actor K. Todd Freeman, who stars in the play as Dee – a man convicted of having a prior romantic relationship with an underage boy. In many ways, the character is the de facto leader of the federally-surveilled household in which these four men live – surprisingly and dysfunctionally – together. It’s Dee, who returns throughout the play to serve as a tender and intelligent purveyor of compassion. In many ways the story runs through him and his perspective, and Freeman’s excellent, vulnerable performance gives the play its power.

You may recognize him from Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal, as “Fake Kor” from the first episode, but Freeman’s had too many TV/Film credits to count over the years and has also found success on Broadway, most recently in The Minutes (2022). He’s been nominated for two Tony Awards and has also won a Drama Desk and Obie Award for his performances.

When I spoke with him, it was via Zoom, before a seven o’clock curtain for another performance of Downstate. Freeman was relaxing and taking time to prepare for another go of the emotionally rigorous play. “We only have one day off a week,” he explains. In an eight-show a week schedule, I could only imagine the toll it takes. But the process has all been pretty smooth and seamless, he assures me when I asked how it’s been. “Pam (MacKinnon) and Bruce (Norris) have collaborated for many years and I’ve known Pam for about twenty years. So we’ve all known each other for a long time. The process was a very forward-moving train that operated the way it was supposed to operate.”

Francis Guinan, Glenn Davis, Susanna Guzmán, Eddie Torres, K. Todd Freeman in Downstate. Photo: Joan Marcus

Freeman’s been a part of the production in all its iterations. It was first produced in 2018 by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, and then traveled to London in 2019 before arriving in New York. But for Freeman, it’s all still fresh. The first two productions only ran for a combined five-and-a-half months, he tells me and “that was the last time I’d touched it.” Picking it back up in 2022 had been a fresh, but easy task.

Talking with Freeman, one gets the impression that it’s all been fairly seamless for him. From a young age, growing up in Houston, TX, he caught the acting bug after watching his eldest sister in a play and wanting to emulate her. He also talks about growing up watching people on the TV, thinking “Oh, it looks like they’re having fun in there!”

At eleven years old, he enrolled in the Alley Theatre Training Center. From there, he continued to the High School for Performing and Visual Arts and the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Then he moved to New York City where he quickly found work on the stage (in West Memphis Mojo at the Buffalo Studio Arena Theatre) and on-screen in the 1990s action movie Street Hunter, as the character “Pretzel.”

Freeman says his acting style is an amalgamation of different things he’s gathered over his career. He steals from the greats like “Carol Burnett, De Niro, Streep,” but credits the Meisner technique as his main source.

When I ask about his experience on The Rehearsal, Freeman informs me he legally cannot talk about the show because of a Non-Disclosure Agreement the production had him sign. But he does tell me, “a lot of people came out of the woodwork,” from his past to congratulate him. More so than any other project he’s done – A Series of Unfortunate Events, Grosse Pointe Blank, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc.

And as for what’s next for Freeman – he can’t talk about that either, for fear of jinxing. He’s very superstitious, he tells me. Right now, he’s enjoying the moment and the pleasure of doing a play he strongly believes in.

“We love this play. Bruce is a great writer and I think it’s the best thing he’s ever written. It’s a very controversial, complicated play. But it’s misunderstood half the time. I don’t think it’s a play about pedophilia, it’s a play about forgiveness and mercy, and self examination of how you deal with your fellow human. And I think if people can see through the metaphor, then they’ll realize what a gorgeous piece of uniquely genius theatre Bruce has created. That’s why I’m very happy to be a part of it and very proud of the piece – to see how it’s affecting people, and to work with the actors in the play who are so amazing. Everyone is just so wonderful and easy to work with. It’s been a pleasure to be up there with them. It’s a painful play to do and live through, but ultimately it’s a piece of pride.”

Downstate, closes Saturday, Jan. 7 at Playwrights Horizons. Tickets available here.

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