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September 22, 2012

“Detroit”: Why I'm Cool on This Hot Show


Sometimes, as hard as I might try, I just don’t get it. For instance, I know that I’m supposed to like Detroit, the new dark comedy that opened at Playwrights Horizons this past week.  And I can give you at least five reasons why I should:

1. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. 

2. It was a hit when it premiered at Chicago’s hip Steppenwolf Theatre Company the year before that. 

3. It has a hot cast lead by the-can-do-anything actress Amy Ryan and David Schwimmer, the co-star of the beloved sitcom “Friends” who also has serious theater chops.

4. It takes on the subject of class in America, which is exactly the kind of serious thing I’m always saying that theater companies should do.  

5. It has drawn mash notes from just about every critic in town (click here to read the raves on StageGrade). 

And yet, I have to say that I just don’t get what all the fuss is about.

Although the play is called Detroit, playwright Lisa D’Amour has set it in an unnamed “first ring suburb outside of a mid-sized American city” that seems to be located deep in Edward Albee territory.

For Detroit opens with a seemingly placid backyard barbeque shared by two couples who are just getting to know one another.  And then, pretty quickly, everything starts to go to George-and-Martha-type hell as they all struggle to hold on to their illusions about the American Dream. 

Actually, things aren’t so great from the get-go. The host couple, Mary and Ben, are reeling from the Great Recession; he’s lost his job as a bank loan officer and spends his days on their home computer ostensibly setting up a consulting business. Meanwhile she's struggling to keep their heads above water with the salary from her job as a lowly paralegal.

Their new neighbors Kenny and Sharon have the kind of even lower-wage jobs that seem to define the new economy: he works in a warehouse, she in a call center.  Kenny and Sharon confess that they’re also recovering addicts but it’s obvious that they’re struggling with other demons as well.

Now I get—and even appreciate—the fact that D’Amour wants to drive home the point that the post-War promises of the ‘50s were hollow and that today’s middle class has been seriously wounded (literally here; the fake blood flows). But this isn’t really news and Detroit doesn't offer any more insights into this discontent than an Occupy poster on an episode of TV's "Mad Men."

And although some of the absurdist touches D’Amour and director Anne Kauffman stir into their brew are undeniably amusing, they also struck me as dramaturgical filigree instead of organic moments.

Moreover, her characters live in such apparent isolation from the rest of the world and go off on such surrealistic tangents that it’s hard to feel much for them, even though all of the actors are quite fine.   

Ryan and Schwimmer are first-rate as Mary and Ben (click here to read their take on the play).  but I was even more impressed by Darren Pettie and Sarah Sokolovic who bring a bracing sense of menace and disruptive energy to Kenny and Sharon.

Who knows, perhaps I might have received the play differently if the scenic turntable hadn’t stalled midway through the performance I saw, causing the stage manager to call the actors off the stage and the house lights to be turned up for the 10 or so minutes that it took to get it turning again.

Or maybe I would have gotten more into Detroit if I hadn’t been sitting in front of a row of old-codger theatergoers who spent half of the show’s 100-minutes loudly asking their spouses to repeat lines that the actors had just said. And then spent the other half making sarcastic, and equally loud, comments about the ones they had managed to hear. Shame on them and all their ilk.

Or it could just be that Detroit is one of those plays that, no matter what the circumstance, just doesn't get to me.

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