nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
September 15, 2012
While many playwrights are still trying to mine the last remaining drops of sadistic humor out of the dysfunctional American family, few are looking at the bigger picture: dysfunctional America. That’s why the New York arrival of Lisa D’Amour’s 2011 Pulitzer finalist Detroit should be heralded. This incisive and thoroughly compelling new tragicomedy confronts both the economic meltdown and the perils of being friendly with your neighbors in surprising, brutally honest ways that we rarely see.
In the back and front yards of former model homes in an unnamed city, two sets of neighbors strike up a friendship. Mary (Amy Ryan) is a paralegal; her husband Ben (David Schwimmer) has recently been laid off from his job as a loan officer and is in the process of starting-up a financial planning venture. Sharon and Kenny (Sarah Sokolovic and Darren Pettie) have just moved in next door. Both fresh out of drug rehab, they’re doing a lot more menial work: she answers calls in a phone bank; he works in a warehouse.
D’Amour takes us on a tour of how simple pleasantries between new neighbors can quickly become friendships. Coffee tables are gifted; invitations for a camping trip are exchanged. A broken patio umbrella and a stuck sliding door show the bourgeoning splinters in Mary and Ben’s seemingly bucolic existence. So do the vodkas she gulps down in large quantities. And while they are more than welcoming to Sharon and Kenny, we as observers start to realize that there’s more to this new couple than meets the eye.
Anne Kauffman’s staging on two separate sets that flip back and forth (designed by Louisa Thompson) works well for the piece, and the pace continually becomes more and more frenzied as the text builds to its wild, climactic crescendo. Of the performers, only Sokolovic seems completely comfortable in her character’s skin, and as a result, her big, broad performance with well-earned laughs was the only one that really stood out. Neither Ryan nor Schwimmer seem all that natural, their line delivery just slightly stilted. Pettie is a bit too much of a gruff bruiser. John Cullum appears in a terrific cameo during the play’s coda, showing that at 82 years old, he hasn’t lost his ability to grab the audience.
Not everything is perfect. A climactic drunk scene and heavy-handed dialogue about dreams wouldn’t stand out like they do as playwriting 101 if the rest of the text wasn’t so insightful. And I can’t help but wonder how the play’s dynamics would shift if one of the couples wasn’t white. Even so, D’Amour taps into a fear that almost every middle class and blue collar working American share today. What if I can’t make my rent? What if I don’t have enough money for my next meal? That makes Detroit one of the scariest plays around.