Conservative political voices—including Texas Senator Ted Cruz—are turning a critical eye on Washington Post theatre critic Peter Marks following his positive review of Bruce Norris' Downstate, currently making an extended Off-Broadway premiere at Playwrights Horizons through December 22. Marks was forced to take his Twitter handle private after the brouhaha set his mentions ablaze.
Pulitzer winner Norris' play is admittedly incendiary, centering on four men, all convicted of sex crimes, who share a group home in Illinois post-incarceration. One day, a man arrives to confront his childhood abuser. Marks' review charges headfirst into the play's tricky subject matter, using the headline, "Downstate is a play about pedophiles. It’s also brilliant."
Writes Marks: "Take a deep breath and try to ruminate calmly on the position playwright Bruce Norris takes in his scintillating new play, Downstate: that the punishments inflicted on some pedophiles are so harsh and unrelenting as to be inhumane. Are you still reading? It’s almost impossible to broad-brush the perspective at the heart of this impeccably acted drama without sounding as if one is advocating some extraordinary level of consideration for individuals who have committed unspeakable crimes.” He goes on to write that the work depicts its characters "not as monsters but rather as complicated, troubled souls," while the "most disagreeable character" is one of the predators' victims.
But where Marks (and ostensibly Norris) found nuance, and a novel and engaging journey into the seemingly taboo, online critics—mostly politically conservative voices—accused Marks of "normalizing" pedophilia, as one Twitter user put it. One of the more notable voices chiming in was Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who wrote on Twitter: "So now the corporate media is praising pedophilia." Cruz is known for his own incendiary takes on such subjects as rights for the LGBTQ+ community and, ironically, pedophilia (at least when a Republican Senatorial candidate is involved).
The remarks follow the growth of so-called pedophilia as a rallying cry against the LGBTQ+ community amongst conservative voices. In recent months, depictions of gay and Trans characters in youth-aimed media have been characterized as “grooming” without evidence of any such agenda. Drag queen-hosted reading events at libraries nationwide have been violently disrupted by protesters, including the Proud Boys.
Marks' review does not condone the actions of Downstate's characters, instead praising how Norris engages the audience: "We learn about what each of them has done, and we are in effect asked to judge for ourselves what magnitude of ongoing torment each deserves." He goes on to describe the play as "a stunning demonstration of the power of narrative art to tackle a taboo, to compel us to look at a controversial topic from novel perspectives."
He closes the piece comparing Norris' play to Ibsen's A Doll's House, calling its depiction of a woman leaving her husband and children in search of freedom and identity as taboo for the time it was written as Downstate is today. Ibsen's play, which premiered in 1879, has in the years since become an oft-produced classic; film star Jessica Chastain is set to lead a Broadway revival of the play later this season.
Cruz and the conservative critics of Marks' review have had years to register their disapproval of Norris' play. The work played a world premiere run at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in 2018, where The New York Times' Jesse Green named the production a Critics' Pick. Playwrights Horizons' production has also received almost unanimously rave reviews from the major outlets, though other reviews have not received as much attention.