“Detroit,” which originated at Steppenwolf and came this close to winning the Pulitzer, is a play sure to generate sizzling buzz. Lisa D’Amour’s dark comedy about young marrieds (David Schwimmer and Amy Ryan, almost too good to be true) hanging on for dear life to the American Dream while the economy crumbles is smart, deadly funny and gives you something to think about. The schematics are too obvious to tap into the cumulative fear and dread the scribe is aiming for, but the sense of danger in individual scenes strongly suggests that the next social wars will be fought on suburban battlefronts.
Title aside, the dramedy that plays out in the backyard patios of two adjacent homes in a suburban development on the outskirts of some major American city could be happening just about anywhere.
On the surface, Ben and Mary’s marriage appears to be solid, and aside from some crumbling pavers and rickety patio furniture, any signs of underlying decay are subtle and out of sight. Like a lot of startup couples without any kids, Ben and Mary still define themselves by their jobs. (He’s a loan officer at a bank, and she’s a paralegal.) It takes a few scenes to establish that Ben has lost his job and is starting up a website business to advise people who find themselves in the same pickle.
Mary is still bringing in a paycheck, but the strain is beginning to show, mainly in her brave denial of their new economic reality. Instead of hunkering down on their dwindling assets, she goes overboard to buy pricey foodstuffs — steaks and caviar and heirloom tomatoes — for the outdoor barbecue the couple are throwing for their new next-door neighbors.
Kenny and Sharon (Darren Pettie and Sarah Sokolovic, more power to them) are much easier to read. Only a few rungs up from poor white trash, they both recently matriculated from drug rehab and haven’t a stick of furniture to their name; if a relative wasn’t letting them live rent-free in the house next door, they wouldn’t even have a roof over their heads. But at least they’ve both got paying jobs: He humps heavy stuff at a local warehouse, and she works the phones at a call center.
Socio-economic differences aside, the two couples hit it off. Without making a big deal about it, D’Amour manages to suggest that a number of homes in this mid-scale subdivision (and, by extension, in housing developments all over the country) are empty, abandoned or in receivership. That subtle suggestion goes a long way to explain the bleak comfort that Ben and especially Mary take in bonding with their slippery but warm-blooded neighbors.
By the time that Kenny and Sharon reciprocate their neighbors’ generosity with their own unorthodox backyard barbecue — a loud, drunken blast that turns into something of a bacchanal — the playwright has made it abundantly clear that the American social contract is being rewritten from coast to coast, from neighborhood to neighborhood, from street to street. If the whole concept of “middle class” is breaking down, so, too, are all the social indicators that went into that definition.
Not that anyone hauls out a soapbox to make any such pronouncements. And Anne Kauffman, who has pretty much made her entire directorial career out of letting characters take their own sweet time about falling apart at the seams, is much too shrewd to bring out a megaphone. Rather, D’Amour gets a huge point across in a well-written and subtly played scene in which Kenny generously tries to interest uptight Ben in a dirty boys’ night out at a strip joint. Mary and Sharon, meanwhile, explore new definitions of female solidarity in a hilarious overnight camping trip to explore nature in the raw. The messages delivered are clear and pointed but never crude.
And while it’s inevitable that one couple’s values should get the upper hand over the other’s, a delicious coda to that critical event — superbly delivered in a cameo from John Cullum — brings everyone back to earth with an extraordinarily satisfying thud of reality.