'Detroit'

A smart new play about two couples clinging desperately to the remnants of the American Dream.

Detroit,” a smart and frequently funny new play by Lisa D’Amour about two couples clinging desperately to the remnants of the American Dream, makes no secret of the fact that it is operating both as amusing narrative and as metaphor. In fact, the titular city doesn’t just represent a specific locale (the work, according to the program, is set vaguely in “the first-ring suburb of a mid-sized city,”), but Detroit is clearly the most recognizable example of the nation’s economic unmooring. The Motor City of the title is simply America itself, a culture built on optimism and entrepreneurial spirit, but now addicted to terrible habits and mostly ignoring its ever-more-rickety infrastructure.

That applies both to the physical infrastructure – Kevin Depinet’s striking set depicting the yards of two neighboring homes – and to the psychology of the inhabitants, who in this “Detroit” have been losing their grip on life.

D’Amour certainly has a fine touch at finding the comical in ricketiness and bad habits. The play starts with Mary (the superb Laurie Metcalf) trying and failing to open a patio umbrella. It’s not long before it crashes down on her new neighbor’s head. And by the second scene, Metcalf exposes her dark-side drinking problem with a poignantly funny monologue of middle-class anxiety and marital frustration that’s the high-point of the evening.

Mary and her husband, Ben (Ian Barford), an unemployed loan officer determined to start his own financial-planning business with the help of a $65 book on the subject, find something genuinely appealing about their new neighbors Kenny (Kevin Anderson) and Sharon (Kate Arrington), and it may well be the fact that they’re significantly worse off. They met in rehab and are trying to get a fresh start after what Sharon describes as a “glossy motorcade of substances.” It’s a phrase that she obviously has been fed from somewhere, just as Ben quotes the self-help advice of his book, and just as Mary praises the special pink salt she serves with her appetizers.

Director Austin Pendleton manages to balance the combination of the pixilated and the realistic for most of the show. The couples keep inviting each other over, playing the roles of old-fashioned neighbors, but physical injury still follows, and their fortunes get As long as the play maintains that sense of people teetering on the very edge, it’s convincing and compelling and tartly funny. Some of the best lines are the simplest, such as when Kenny, upon hearing Sharon start singing a 1980s song pretty much out of nowhere, turns to his neighbor and says, “Remember MTV?”

But the leap over the edge that occurs in the climactic scene – with the couples bursting into a suburban bacchanalia — feels fundamentally too sudden and unearned. The laughs get cheaper, the revelations become cliché and the outcome, no matter how clever, feels both forced and predictable, which means it evokes neither emotion nor laughs.

Still, the play’s insight, some of its goofy humor and the fine performances from Metcalf, Anderson and Arrington stick with you. (The usually excellent Barford seems overly timid in his choices here.)

This may well be the most effective play yet produced about our current economic doldrums. So if the ending feels underwritten, maybe that’s just because the real one hasn’t happened yet.

Detroit

Steppenwolf Theater; Chicago;510 seats; $73 top

Production

A Steppenwolf Theater Company presentation of a play in one act by Lisa D'Amour. Directed by Austin Pendleton.

Creative

Set, Kevin Depinet; costumes, Rachel Healy; lighting, Kevin Rigdon; music and sound, Josh Schmidt; choreography, Tommy Rapley; fight choreography, Matt Hawkins; stage manager, Michelle Medvin. Opened Sept. 19, 2010. Reviewed Sept. 18. Runs through Nov. 7. Running Time: 1 HOUR, 35 MIN.

Cast

Mary - Laurie Metcalf Sharon - Kate Arrington Kenny - Kevin Anderson Ben - Ian Barford Frank - Robert Breuler
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