In the life they had planned for themselves, upscale suburbanites Mary and Ben probably never thought they’d be trading hosting duties at weekend barbeques with people like Kenny and Sharon. In the life they had planned for themselves Mary and Ben surely never imagined they’d be neighbors with people like Kenny and Sharon. But with their dreams of a secure and prosperous life temporarily – at least they hope temporarily – put on hold because of a precarious American economy, the couple next door just might be a mirror image of what is only a few missed payments away.
Though it debuted with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company two years ago, Lisa D'Amour’s Detroit, a Pulitzer finalist, remains a topical comedy during an election season where unemployment and job creation are hot issues.
The titular city is never mentioned in the play and the program notes describe the setting as a “first ring” suburb outside a mid-size American city; a suburb we eventually find was created as a community of affordable “little boxes.” The notes also include a quote from architecture critic Herbert Muschamp, teaching us that after 40 years the glue that holds plywood together will dry, causing the wood to buckle and peel until rooms made of the material “morph into trick-or-treat versions of themselves.” Hence the happy suburban lifestyle that may have raised people like Mary and Ben in the 1970’s has started turning ghoulish.
Ben (David Schwimmer) is a laid-off bank loan officer approaching the end of his severance pay, but insisting his new web-based financial planning business will soon be ready to take off. Meanwhile, Mary (Amy Ryan) pays the bills as a paralegal and, growing more and more frustrated with Ben’s lack of financial productivity, has turned more and more to alcohol.
Also frustrating them is the patio umbrella that won’t stay open and the sticky sliding door, neither of which faze their new neighbors. Having fallen in love while both were in rehab, Kenny (Darren Pettie) and Sharon (Sarah Sokolovic) fell into taking the house next door through family, though they lack the money to furnish it with their low-income jobs. Having nothing to lose actually looks comfortable on them, as they live their lives without inhibitions; happy to dine on the steaks and imported cheeses served by Mary and Ben while burgers and Cheetos are on the menu when they have company.
While the set-up works, the development is lacking, as the playwright presents the ill effects the couples have on one another in a manner that’s too jokey to be empathetic. Her dialogue is often amusing, but it rarely digs deep into the issues she’s laid out. And while Anne Kauffman’s direction effectively mixes the play’s potentially volatile combination of funny and creepy, Ryan too frequently lunges into a different plane of reality whenever Mary loses control and Schwimmer tends to overplay his underplaying. Pettie and Sokolovic are spot-on, though, subtly showing the potential for violence under Kenny’s genial exterior and the combination of sturdiness and vulnerability that alternates within Sharon.
The best work all around comes in the play’s penultimate scene, where Kenny and Sharon’s influence on Ben and Mary comes to a dangerous climax, but it’s followed by a rather heavy-handed thematic summary of sorts by a character making his first appearance in the play. The fact that the character is played by John Cullum means the heavy-handedness is softened as skillfully as possible, but Detroit, despite being sufficiently entertaining and thought-provoking, feels more like a play of unrealized potential.
Photos by Jeremy Daniel: Top: Amy Ryan and David Schwimmer; Bottom: Sarah Sokolovic and Darren Pettie.
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