The suburban setting, hiding underlying malignancies

Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit was a finalist for last year’s Pulitzer Prize, which ultimately went to Quiara Alegría Hudes’s more earnest Water by the Spoonful.  Detroit is instead a rather vicious examination of American dreaming and its attendant disappointments and perversities, all delivered in comic dialogue that carries less of a wink than a bite.  It’s a perfect play for an era of economic uncertainty and political shape-shifting.

Despite all its ordinary suburban appearances, nothing in this strangely disquieted, more or less middle-class neighborhood is as it seems.  In fact, despite the play’s title, the Playwrights Horizon’s program is vague about the place, which it describes as a “’first ring’ suburb outside of a mid-size American city.”  Because the play is called Detroit, it’s easy to read it through that city’s economic depression and racial strife.  But D’Amour is after something bigger than profiling just one declining U.S. city desperate to revive itself.  The city becomes a synecdoche for the country itself, and its white, purportedly middle-class characters tell a cautionary tale about those in the so-called fly-over states who so often represent the “real” America in political discourse, whether idealized or disparaged.  The play succeeds by telling a story nearly David Lynch-like in its ability to get at the seamy underside of middle-class American life.

Directed crisply and sensitively by Anne Kauffman, D’Amour’s play puts two ordinary-seeming white couples together in close proximity and watches how the four characters push and prod one another toward revealing the fear and wrenching disappointment covered by lives of prosaic propriety.  Mary (Amy Ryan) and Ben (David Schwimmer) live in a house that seems, from the back- or front yards where the action is set, perfectly acceptable and conventional.  And as gracious suburbanites, they’re quick to invite their new neighbors, Kenny (Darren Pettie) and Sharon (Sarah Sokolovic), over for dinner.

Ben cooks outside on a large and handsome propane-fueled Weber affair, boasting about throwing “these puppies on the grill” when he’s ready to prepare the steaks he and Mary serve.  Schwimmer plays Ben with a perfect mix of bumbling anxiety and calculated, if only finally hopeful, arrogance.  Ben has recently been laid off from his job as a loan officer, and boasts that he’s starting his own financial planning consultancy on a web site he’s creating.  When he offers to practice his new skills on Kenny and Sharon, D’Amour intimates that Ben isn’t quite as competent as he takes pains to seem.  In his trademark Friends-inspired style, Schwimmer plays Ben’s reactions with blankly confused expressions, as the poor guy is always a beat behind the others in figuring out what just happened.

Mary, on the other hand, is sharper at keeping up with conversational subtexts, even if she doesn’t have the wherewithal to act on her instincts.  She works as a paralegal, fond of pretending to type letters while she’s actually shopping online.  She also has a drinking problem, easily sniffed out and diagnosed by Sharon, who’s a recovering addict.  Ryan beautifully communicates Mary’s sneering confidence, which thinly veils her own resentments and concerns about a future that suddenly seems much less than secure.

Sharon and Kenny are noticeably less adept at middle-class decorum than their new neighbors.  Sharon seems younger than the other three, and Kenny seems moody and mysterious in ways that make him stand out against the more conventional masculinity Ben tries to achieve.  Pettie plays the shifty Kenny as a handsome rogue who can’t quite look at people full on.  He jiggles his legs impatiently and always seems to have an eye on the door, even outside, where each scene takes place.

Sharon and Kenny announce at the first of the foursome’s dinners that they met when they entered rehab at the same time.  That their story quickly unravels, along with their sobriety, helps D’Amour move along a plot that doesn’t seem to have a central conflict or even a focal point.  The play instead moves subtly toward its rather shocking and spectacular ending, permeated by a tension the source of which is difficult to pin down.  D’Amour’s achievement with Detroit is that the play seems infected with a malignancy that never really takes firm shape, but erupts instead from within the characters themselves, as drugs and alcohol and finally music free them to enact the anger and unhappiness and desire they work so hard to quell.

That is, Mary and Ben work hard at it.  The coiled Kenny and the impulsive, wacky Sharon—beautifully played as a Hippie-manqué by the charismatic, loose-limbed and energetic Sokolovic—seem to have confronted their truths in rehab and their twelve-step programs.  They live comfortably in the present-tense, using the know-and-forgive-yourself-and-others rhetoric of recovery.  Their apparent openness about their past lives and excesses seduces Mary and Ben into addressing their own hidden demons, though the cost for the more conventional couple turns out to be quite high.

Kenny (Pettie) and Ben (Schwimmer): defining masculinity

Kenny resembles the Brad Pitt character in Kalifornia, the guy whose footloose and fancy free attitude is seductive to the more buttoned-down Ben, who doesn’t recognize the violence Kenny harbors.  When Mary and Sharon go off on a long-planned, much idealized camping trip together, Kenny talks Ben into joining him at a strip club for the evening, despite Ben’s protests about his monogamy and his morals.  That neither the men’s nor the women’s outings go as planned doesn’t matter; D’Amour indicates that to arrive at the kind of intimacy the trips promise, the characters would literally have to leave their homes.  Such freedom from their own domesticity—represented adroitly by designer Louisa Thompson’s agile set—rarely occurs, as each couple seems saddled with the repetitive performances of a too-settled married suburban life.

Thompson’s evocative set revolves from the back to the front of Ben and Mary’s house and to the front and back of Kenny’s and Sharon’s, making palpable their stultifying sameness and stasis.  Even the dialogue repeats with each new grilling episode.  Although Kenny makes fun of Ben’s forced cheerfulness at their first meeting, when Ben and Mary come to his house for dinner, he, too, announces that he’s going to throw “these puppies on the grill,” turning American masculine can-do-ness into a kind of performative that he well knows is constructed.

Though they’re neighbors, these two couples live at far different ends of an economic scale.  The set and costume design (costumes by Kaye Voyce) and D’Amour’s dialogue illustrate the layers of difference within the supposedly homogenous “middle class” of America.  When Ben and Mary visit their neighbors, their house looks almost identical, except that its siding seems dirtier and its appointments are in disrepair.  The deck Kenny is building isn’t yet finished; Kenny and Sharon’s grill is a small charcoal Hibachi, beside which Kenny sits, coaxing the coals and the hamburgers to heat.

The treacherous, unfinished deck

At their second dinner at her home, Mary inexplicably tries to impress Kenny and Sharon by serving them upscale hors d’oeuvres.  She lays out an array of delicacies from Whole Foods, including caviar and pink salt, pompously explaining each item to her new friends as Ben watches, incredulous.  When Kenny and Sharon host, Sharon suddenly remembers that she’s forgotten to serve the “appetizers,” running back into the house to retrieve a plate of what she calls “white trash” food, including Cheez Whiz and Saltines.  Sharon is too earnestly good-humored, if slightly unhinged, to be mean; she’s simply meeting Mary’s gesture in kind and demonstrating the couples’ vast differences in class presumption in the meantime.

Given its setting in these closely connected tract homes, you might think that Detroit’s action would be static and contained.  But D’Amour and Kauffman keep the pace quick and the events surprising.  Ben and Kenny get hurt in one another’s yards, Kenny with a patio umbrella that closes unexpectedly, and Ben by a loose plank in the deck Kenny is trying to build, both in a rather neat displacement of masculine violence.  The women, too, circle around one another, never quite articulating the sexual competition and the erotic tension that crackle in their mutual air.  The play’s erotics and violence only explode at the end, when a mix of drugs and alcohol and propulsive music let the foursome bump and grind out their lusts and longings.  In the climactic scene, Sharon kisses Ben and then Mary, neither of whom can understand nor resist the desire she suddenly ignites in them.

[Spoiler alert.]  In fact, the metaphor of heat and ignition becomes literal when Sharon decides “we’re going to have a fire,” and lights up Ben and Mary’s wooden patio furniture.  As the couples dance around the flames in a suburban tribal ritual of catharsis and reclamation, Kenny wanders into Ben and Mary’s house to set the kitchen and then the whole house alight.  Thompson and lighting designer Mark Barton create a compelling and convincing conflagration, which dies down to reveal the charred skeleton of Ben and Mary’s house.

As Frank, John Cullum explains it all

In Detroit’s embers, Kenny’s uncle Frank (John Cullum, perfect in a one-scene role) appears to explain that Kenny’s name is really Roger, and that his nephew has a history of drug and jail trouble.  Kenny and Sharon have disappeared, leaving Frank to deliver the eulogy over the suburban dream that the likes of his nephew ensure will never again be actualized.  Scanning the neighborhood’s horizon with bitter nostalgia, Frank remembers its heyday, when neighbors borrowed sugar and shored up one another’s illusions that their cookie-cutter way of life was right and true.

The stunned Ben and Mary listen without quite comprehending, strangely thankful that the home that constrained them no longer exists.  They’re unwilling to blame Kenny and Sharon, and ruefully tell Frank that the couple was nice, that they liked them.  The fire and its aftermath free Mary and Ben, loosening the bounds of expectation enough that they think they can start their lives over.

Throughout the play, Sharon has teased Ben, insisting that he’s really British.  It turns out that Ben actually does harbor a secret desire to be British.  Mary thinks he’s visiting internet porn sites while he’s pretending to build his web site, but in fact, he’s visiting addresses that encourage him to play at the noblesse oblige of aristocratic British life.  With their house in ashes, Mary surprises Ben by suggesting they move to the U.K.  She also calls him “Ian” in front of Frank, beginning again the process of trying to remake yourself, just as Kenny/Roger did, that’s as much a part of the American way of life as (supposedly) moving to the suburbs.

Although their dream of escape and renewal is no doubt a fantasy, D’Amour lets Ben and Mary believe for this last moment in the pretense of “elsewhere,” a place where they can be upstairs rather than downstairs, a new place that happens to be an old place, and the delusion that returning to the “motherland” will revive their fortunes.

Detroit is a smart, poignant play and Playwrights’ exciting, visceral production keeps spectators glued to the scene, wondering about and never prepared for what will happen next.  In the absurdist tradition of Albee, D’Amour shows us a reverse image of the American dream, leaving us disconcerted and yet strangely, productively hopeful nonetheless.

The Feminist Spectator

Detroit, Playwrights Horizons, extended through October 28, 2012.


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