I’ve been trying to figure out why Lisa D’Amour decided to call her new play Detroit, as the Playbill clearly tells us the play is set in “a first ring suburb of a mid-size American city. I have to surmise therefore that Detroit is a metaphor for all first ring suburbs, which were destinations for many young families after WWII. Inexpensive houses made of plywood and shingle were offered to buyers via four or five model homes. Each couple selected the one it favored, and it was built for them quickly, ready for them to move in, complete with washer, dryer, small patio, lots of landline phone outlets and whatever other good things the early 1950s had to offer.
So it is we meet Mary and Ben (Amy Ryan and David Schwimmer), thirty something, on their backyard terrace, battling a recalcitrant garden umbrella which refuses to stay open long enough to do much good. They will soon set up their grill to entertain their new next door neighbors Sharon and Kenny (Sarah Sokolovik and Darren Pettie) and as they’re all about the same age, and they all want to live in this particular development, and none seems to have any friends in the vicinity, the conversation flows freely but unrevealingly for about 15 minutes before we first notice cracks in the image of perfection each couple seems to be throwing out there.
In the next 90 minutes of this one-acter, we observe the collapse of the new friendship as truth after truth about the lives and times of young marrieds in the 21st century come crashing down on us until these truths rise into a tsunami which sweeps away all hope of dreams fulfilled for all of them.
It is D’Amour’s intent to write about the current malaise, particularly in middle America, that has hit her characters particularly hard. Ben has lost his job in a bank and is trying desperately to turn himself into an entrepreneur by developing a new form of website that he dreams will rival Facebook and Google. All his wife Mary knows is that he is now “home all day,” and what that unnatural state does to a relationship. Sharon and Kenny have managed to get into this particular enclave by the lowering of home prices, but they are living right on the financial edge.
Their attempts to connect seem to be working, as Ben and Mary are well dramatized by the writer’s naturalistic and often pungent dialogue, and for a time, after gallons of beer, the four become united in a frenzied asexual orgy that leads to more frightening behavior, and suddenly we are in the center of an onstage gotterdammerung. I would not want to be the stage manager, Lisa Ann Chernoff, for it is her responsibility to direct the cleanup of the mess left onstage at curtain’s fall.
Before that curtain, the play wraps with the introduction of “Frank” who lives very nearby in the housing development. Frank is Kenny’s great uncle and it is in a house he owns that they are currently shacking up, rent free. The always excellent John Cullum, first billed, plays this short one-scene role with the star quality he brings to everything he does, but it’s an odd choice as the scene is tacked on to the end just to give us a look into the neighborhood’s past, a look into Kenny’s former brushes with the law, and to the glory days when every house was fresh and new, and the families that came out each day to go to work, to school, to the market were eager and solid and filled with confidence in the future of the nation, and in their own futures as well.
It is certainly material relevant to today but I found it difficult to offer much empathy to these particular four. Two of them are in between drug rehabilitation programs and the more mature couple has no imagination or any understanding of how they may have contributed to their current situation. David Schwimmer and Amy Ryan bring a sort of naive charm to the current turmoil in their lives, with Schwimmer proving he’s as comfortable onstage as he was for all those years on “Friends”, but Darren Pettie brings more variety and contrast to his playing of Kenny. Susan Sokolovic’s “Sharon” is vivid and frightening, the sort of neighbor to whom you should not be getting too close. She’s dangerous and loud, and once she’s on to an idea, she cannot be shut up. It may be that Ms. Sokolovic’s work is so good that she’s made Sharon a very demanding pain.
These four are not people you want to spend 90 minutes with. John Cullum’s “Frank” on the other hand is a pleasant guy — he has humor, tenderness, toughness, lack of prejudice, and great appeal. It might have been more interesting to have the play set in his home, with the other four as guests, so we would not have a play centering on four losers.
I’m aware that circumstances occasionally beyond their control have not favored them, but as written I can’t erase the thought that they have made nothing but wrong choices, and that does not make them boon companions for us. I want to shout at them: “Stop complaining. Ben, you’re not in a position to be chasing a new website, Sharon and Kenny, clean up your act and take some responsibility. You’re not and never were flower children, you should have been young in the seventies, then you’d have had something to outgrow. But growing up in the 80’s should not have been so traumatic for you.
Perhaps younger audiences will find their antics amusing and then moving; I found them amusing and then tiresome.
Detroit is onstage until Oct 7, 2012 at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street New York, NY.
Details and tickets
Most shows are sold out.
Richard Seff, who, in his career on Broadway has been a performer, agent, writer, and librettist, has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com. Read more at RichardSeff.com
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