Monday, September 26, 2011

Detroit – A Play by Lisa D’Amour – Book Review

The intrigue and genius of this play begins for the reader/audience , like it does for all great plays, with its title. Detroit as a title, as simple as Hamlet and slightly less poetic than A Streetcar Named Desire, has a suggestive nuance that begins its deceptive hypnosis on you before you know anything else about the play itself. Detroit is a national icon of the American Dream gone wrong. Its had its ups and downs, mostly more downs in recent decades, but, in our current economic climate, Detroit has a great deal to say about how capitalism has evolved/devolved in our country, and, in a fossil fuel warring world, just naming a play after the motor city seems to suggest the author has something significant to deliver.
Add to that equation that Detroit takes place in a “first ring” suburb of any mid-size American city and its “I am a play about the America you live in now” factor goes up quite a bit. This is one of those plays that dares (and succeeds) to bring into focus the blurry and ill-defined raw nature of the American experience, boldly articulating it for its contemporary audience as well as documenting it for future generations.
Set current day in the backyards and front porches of two neighboring homes, the houses built in the 1950’s, where Mary and Ben, a paralegal and a recently laid off bank loan officer, both in their mid-thirties, begin to get to know their recently moved in neighbors, Kenny and Sharon, a warehouse manager and a phone bank worker, also in their mid-thirties, Detroit is a play that, from the start, shows itself to be an insightful and useful anthropological yard stick. The goals and futures of these two couples, even in their first scene, all of them non-committal in their jobs (jobs specifically, not careers), are a dramatic unstated contrast to the legacies of the people who built these 50’s homes, and first created this neighborhood. 
Even on their first meeting, where Mary and Ben have invited the newly moved in couple, Kenny and Sharon, over for dinner, things are not going well. Kenny and Sharon, it turns out, have met in rehab and are really just out and just attempting to start a new and hopefully clean life for themselves. But, due to their sorted pasts, neither has any fiscal resources and the house they are living in, Kenny’s recently deceased aunt’s house,  is bare of any furnishings save for a mattress on the floor of their bedroom.
Yet Kenny and Sharon come off, early in the play, as the two that are more centered and focused on moving forward and doing better for themselves in life. Mary and Ben, while currently situated a bit better (they of course have furniture and, despite Ben’s recent lay off, are able to shop at Whole Foods and buy caviar to serve to their neighbor guests) , seem to be on the edge of a cliff that has a much deeper drop off than any they have encountered before.
As the play progresses and we see the neighbors visiting back and forth, Ben and Mary’s heavy drinking stands out in stark contrast to Kenny and Sharon’s newly found sobriety. Soon, however, Kenny and Sharon both slowly begin to slip. One beer then another are had. Stories about shooting up and meeting strangers become less guilt ridden accounts of a regrettable time in the past than entertaining anecdotes that seem to display a longing for a world not that far out of reach.
As Ben’s enthusiasm for his entrepreneurial venture into a self-authored credit score repair website dwindles and Mary’s patience with Ben’s failing plan dwindles as well, the couple’s joint and individual compass’ directs them gradually toward their new neighbors who are loosening up more and more as the play continues.
When, late in the play, the four of them spend the better part of the night, drinking, singing, and dancing on Ben and Mary’s front porch, the boundaries of neighbors and spouses and recreation and abuse begin to go up in flames. The selfish and desperate devastation that the couples wage on themselves and each other is an unsettling snap shot of contemporary unease.
It would have been easy and tempting for the author to make this a play just about the challenging road to recovery of substance abuse. It would have been just and easy and tempting to make Kenny and Sharon into the carelessly corrupting influences on otherwise marginal do-gooders of Mary and Ben. But neither is even remotely the case. We, at various times root for each of them while D’Amoure constantly forces us to reevaluate our choices as to who deserves our sympathy, concern and understanding.
The physical world of this play truly sets the stage for the emotional and psychological journey of its characters. Everything here is broken, damaged, or collapsing under their feet. The opening scene has a patio umbrella that won’t open properly and eventually closes unexpectedly leaving a gash in Kenny’s head. As we watch while a character’s leg breaks, a car gets a flat, patio furniture falls apart, it is as if the suburb itself is a character that is unsettled, angry and lashing out at its inhabitants.
Playwright Lisa D'Amour

Detroit received its debut at Steppenwolf in Chicago a year ago, and by all accounts was a knockout of a production. Its was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize this year and is scheduled to have a Broadway production in 2012. I assume the impending Broadway run precludes the availability of rights for a Seattle production, at least for a while. I hope that Seattle theaters are keeping an eye on this one and will jump at the opportunity to stage it here when the time comes. In the meantime, maybe they will join me in hunting down Lisa D’Amour’s earlier works. She is clearly someone we are going to be hearing a lot more from.

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