Saturday, 8 September 2012


     It's a sign of the current, hopeful state of contemporary drama that many of the best playwrights are women: Annie Baker, Gina Gionfriddo, Quiara Allegra Hudes, Amy Herzog, among others. These artists work in the traditional American mode of poetic realism. There is more going on than the viewer first realizes in plays that begin as "slices of life," but take surprising turns. Lisa D'Amour's DETROIT, now at Playwrights Horizons, goes farther in the direction of poetry than most of these plays. One knows from the beginning that things are more unsettled than they seem, but the ultimate cataclysm is both horrifying and a logical extension of what has gone before.
     The initial setting is the backyard of a house in a Levittown-like community. Once a neighborly environment, it now reflects the current state of American anomie. "We have no friends," Mary (Amy Ryan - wonderful!) admits to her and Ben's new next door neighbors, Sharon and Kenny. Ben (David Schwimmer -- yes, THAT David Schwimmer) was laid off from his job as a mortgage broker and is supposedly home working on a website to start a business as a financial consultant. Mary is now the sole breadwinner. She also has a drinking problem. Sharon and Kenny (Darren Pettie and Sharon Sokolovic) have just moved next door. Supposedly (their story changes in retelling) they met in rehab and now have menial jobs. They seem to be settling in though it is odd that there is no furniture in their house. In a series of back and front yard scenes at the two houses, we see that little is as it seems and that Mary and Ben are deeply unhappy with themselves and each other, though they cling to each other out of a kind of desperation. Sharon and Kenny are not only free spirits, luring Mary and Ben into a kind of Dionysian revelry; like Dionysus, they are also destructive. There are all sorts of things going on here. In part this is a kind of class commentary: middle class and underclass trying to find common ground. Mary serves caviar to Sharon and Kenny as an hors d'oeuvre; later Sharon serves Cheetos and Cheese Whiz on Ritz crackers. At their first meeting, Mary gives her neighbors her cocktail table, a bizarre act of generosity or desperation at establishing a friendship; later she finds that it is Sharon and Kenny's only furniture. Mary and Ben own their house; Sharon and Kenny, it turns out, are squatters. For these newcomers, destruction of property is an act of liberation. Are they sociopaths or are they on to something -- that American materialism hasn't made anyone happy?
     At times, the play takes on the surface comfort of a tv sitcom, but there is always something troubling under the surface and little hope of redemption.  Neighborly backyard barbecues always lead to injuries. Mary dreams of going to the woods on a camping trip with Sharon to find some sort of peace but the two women get lost and have to return home. If Levittown and its ilk once represented the American dream -- one's own home and family as a source of peace and contentment, that dream has been lost. Surveying the destruction Sharon and Kenny caused, long time occupant of the neighborhood, Frank (that great veteran actor, John Cullum) waxes nostalgic about the time when this was a community -- when there was at least a dream of community in America, but even he admits that his memory may only be a dream. Whatever things were like in the past, now friendship is merely a performance or a set of demands.
     I found DETROIT to be an absorbing, sometimes entertaining, disturbing play. Anne Kauffman's staging is pitch perfect and the cast is excellent as they move into a kind of heart of darkness. I can see why DETROIT was a Pulitzer Prize finalist this year. Unmissable!
DETROIT by Lisa D'Amour. Playwrights Horizons. September 8, 2012.


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