The axiom “love thy neighbor” is practically obsolete. Prior to the proliferation of smart phones, neighbors were our closest connection to the rest of humanity. Now we can get updates about our friends without even leaving our beds. Still, we stay friendly with our neighbors because, on same basic level, we’re all in this together, although our neighbors can be so different from ourselves. Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit is about two sets of neighbors and how they’re dissimilar. It strives for black comedy, sometimes in a visceral way, but its ill-conceived conclusion undermines the terrific performances. This is the sort of play you want to love more than you ultimately can.
Ben (Tim Geitman) and Mary (Emily Townley) live comfortably in the suburbs. She’s a paralegal, and he’s a laid off loan officer who’s trying to start an online business. They share a backyard with Kenny (Danny Gavigan) and Sharon (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey), who just moved in. When we first meet them, Ben and Mary host the other couple for a backyard barbecue. Their differences are apparent immediately. Kenny and Sharon are more blue collar: they’re intelligent but uneducated, and recoil with quiet disgust when they’re served fancier food. Ben and Emily are more middle class, with the learned post-college tolerance of good, nice liberals.
The two couples come to care for each other after awkward moments: Kenny cuts his head open on an umbrella, and Sharon bursts into tears after Ben and Emily are neighborly with her. Kenny’s injury, complete with plenty of blood, as well as Sharon’s outburst show that they’re basically decent people. Fernandez-Coffey resorts to histrionics for her first big scene, but she softens as the play continues. We learn more uncomfortable details. Kenny and Sharon are recovering drug addicts, and after they share their secret, Emily gets drunk and confesses her despair to Sharon (Emily also vomits, which queasily runs parallel to Kenny’s accident). The play cuts away at neighborly decorum until the four realize that their unhappiness is their bond.
The natural-sounding dialogue never calls attention to itself because character development interests D’Amour more. She invites us to observe the differences between the two couples, whether it’s through the grills they use or their pronunciation. In a funny scene, Kenny and Ben stay at home while Sharon and Mary are away, and the two men riff on their masculine privilege (Kenny knows all the good strip clubs in town). All the character tension comes to a head during an extended party scene: Kenny and Sharon start drinking again, and the four get loaded as the music blares. They try and shake the shackles of suburbia, and Kenny and Sharon take their decadence too far. It’s a deliberately awkward moment, and not just because it’s plainly weird to watch actors dance badly on stage. Ben and Mary are not equipped for the same excess as their new friends, and their switch from participants to observers has an ugly finality to it.
With Detroit, Woolly Mammoth makes a big change in their performance space. The set splits the auditorium in half, so the audience shuffles inside from two entrances. It’s a daring choice, and the payoff is that the audience is physically much closer to the actors. It’s as if we’re wrapped in their milieu, instead of the raised stage creating a sense of distance. Woolly’s recent production of Stupid Fucking Bird repeatedly broke the fourth wall; Detroit has a way of putting the audience inside it. Director John Vreeke and his production team don’t stop there. There are eerie light effects, ones that illuminate the room nearly past the point of comfort.
All the actors are able to transcend the clichéd dimensions of the characters they play. Townley and Geitman are unhappy white-collar archetypes; there have been dozens of plays about people who experience Ben and Mary’s ennui, yet they’re so vulnerable it’s easy to identify with them. Gavigan and Fernandez-Coffey have showier parts. They speak differently and there’s specific movement that defines their non-verbal acting. Gavigan in particular does a terrific job of showing what Kenny thinks through body language. D’Amour pushes her characters with external stimuli, whether it’s a painful accident or alcohol, and it’s as if her cruel games leave the actors reeling.
Detroit ends with some surprises that are dead on arrival. Ben’s big reveal is obvious to the point where I’m surprised D’Amour thought it’d be surprising. There’s an extended prologue where a fifth character (Michael Willis) explains the plot more than it’s necessary. He’s like the psychiatrist from Hitchcock’s Psycho: his monologue is for the audience, not the other characters, and we’re led through what just happened as if we’re children. Detroit does not even include a direct reference to the city in question, leaving us to wonder why the playwright went with that title. Was it just to be evocative? These aren’t the questions we should be asking when a play tries to address how the American dream is broken. D’Amour wrote Detroit in 2011, and it feels that way. Post-recession cynicism is the new reality, whereas the play treats it like a new phenomenon. It is strange to realize that a new-ish play can nonetheless feel so dated.
Detroit is at the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company until October 6th. Buy tickets here!