Detroit, Lisa D’amour’s arresting play, doesn’t really take place in Michigan’s best-known city. It takes place in an unnamed suburb, in a place that can be Anywhere and Nowhere at the very same time. But D’Amour has very specific ideas about just where she wants to talk her audience in this unsettling and deceptively artful new work.
D’Amour, working with director Anne Kauffman in this Playwrights Horizons production (it bowed at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater and was a Pulitzer finalist), has brought forth a comedy that addresses evergreen themes while feeling utterly of the moment. Using two seemingly friendly and good-natured couples as her prism, Detroit comments on how the very nature of the home and the neighborhood as places of security and comfort have been upended. When we first meet Mary and Ben (Amy Ryan and David Schwimmer), they are welcoming new neighbors Kenny and Sharon (Darren Pettie and Sarah Sokolovic) with a backyard barbecue. In between fiddling with a stubborn sliding glass door and one character getting injured by an unstable patio table umbrella, Ben reveals that he has recently lost his banking job and is trying to start a small business from their home, leaving paralegal lifer Amy to shoulder the load.
Kenny and Sharon, meanwhile, share that they became a couple after meeting in rehab and live modestly in the house of Kenny’s aunt, with him picking up work at a warehouse and her, at a call center. As the two couples connect over time, Kenny and Sharon unleash latent self-destructive streaks in an increasingly untethered Ben and Mary – even as the stories they tell stop adding up. Meanwhile, the safety of the suburban ideal Mary and Ben are fighting to maintain mocks them – at one point, even violently, as Ben’s leg crashes through Kenny’s porch. Thanks to Kauffman’s sturdy hand, D’Amour’s humor remains both stark and sympathetic, turning the most mundane of situations into tense moments of reckoning before you have any idea how you got there.
One aspect I found most interesting was that neither of these couples, the youngest members of which admits to being 21, had children, generally seen as a fundamental part of the Shangri-La that eludes this quartet. One reason could be that these characters remain children themselves. Indeed, the excellent performances by the cast all justify the notion that despite their jobs and homes, these people are very much in a case of arrested development. An exquisite Ryan leads the charge, peeling back the layers of an emotionally worn-out Mary, dulling her pain with alcohol and pulling further and further away from Ben, who Schwimmer paints as a modern neutered male, unable to provide and therefore lost at sea.
Pettie and Sokolovic have even more complex roles to play, since they end up hiding as much about Kenny and Sharon as they reveal. But both offer precisely nuanced, carnal looks at the desperation endured by those living on the bottom (and who’ve hit rock bottom). Their comic-tinged looks belie a realistic understanding of their lot in life: hard work and good intentions do not get rewarded, so you might as well take what you can grab. (John Cullum also treats D/Amour’s dialogue like poetry in a small but vital role).
Those behind the scenes also play a key role to Detroit’s success, including Matt Tierney’s realistic sound effects and Louisa Thompson’s quick-swiveling set design. Without their work, D’Amour’s world falling down wouldn’t feel nearly so close to home.
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street,playwrightshorizons.org,
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