|Photo by David Allen|
Things are clearly amiss at Mary’s and Ben’s suburban home as they welcome new, next-door neighbors to a back-yard grill-over in Lisa D’Amour’s Pulitzer-nominated, Obie award-winning Detriot. The patio table’s umbrella keeps collapsing, the sliding glass door stubbornly sticks, Ben’s just become a victim of bank layoffs, and a Planter’s wart is hobbling Mary. Yet they stoically greet Kenny and Sharon, who soon declare, “This is awesome … Who invites their neighbors anymore? -- to which Ben responds, “Well, we don’t have any friends.” What follows that remark is the first of the play’s many (too many, in my opinion) stop-action pauses when these new friends respond with stunned, open-jawed looks after some comment made by one of their foursome.
The differences between the two couples are many and on every level. The more established couple (Mary and Ben) serve cavier, havarti cheese, and pink salt followed by perfectly grilled steaks while the younger, recent-move-ins, Sharon and Kenny, bring out a ‘white trash’ tray of Cheetos, Chez Whip, and Saltines (and white salt) followed by burned-to-a-crisp burgers. The new couple has no furniture, uses sheets for curtains, and shows signs of little noticeable income, leading Mary to offer them an old coffee table (to Ben’s horror). And thus begins our play and the first two of many alternating scenes between the back yards where ever-deepening connections are made by these unlikeliest of friends but where there is also an ever-more-noticeable, growing suspicion that something is just not as it seems on the surface.
Individually, each of this foursome is strangely out-of-sorts, full of secrets, and often more like a caricature than a person one would really meet next door of most neighborhoods. Amy Resnick’s petite and perky Mary is the hostess with the most-est, is welcoming but wary of these strangers, and also has often trouble walking or comprehending the last sentence heard due to her close acquaintanceship with vodka. Friendly Ben (the tall Jeff Garret with longs arms that tend to fly a lot a lot over and around his head) mostly gapes and gawks at the grill during the groups’ conversations but does intervene occasionally with remarks that usually are ignored by the others. Ben is creating a new website to become a financial advisor, and he takes on Kenny as his test client. Out-of-work, but handy-with-tools Kenny (Patrick Kelly Jones) is at first difficult to size up since he too is often quiet and a bit sullen; but as time goes on, Kenny’s roaming hands on women’s bottoms, his increasing desire to do something wild, and his fascination with fire all are used by Mr. Jones to transform a Jeckyl into a Hyde. Luisa Frasconi is young Sharon who tends to recount long, detailed dream accounts (that clearly are not random in purpose), who curses and cries repeatedly, and who brings an air of mystery with her cocked head and puzzling expressions that makes us wonder what is the design behind her seemingly shallow remarks. Together, our quartet moves from initial awkward chitchat to one-on-one soul-searching to a wild, climatic party of dancing, drinking, and declaring of new life directions. Yet most of the time (by design of Ms. D’Amour’s script, by direction of Josh Costello, and/or by acting interpretation of our foursome), their interactions never register as real, by real people. These are people we as audience watch with some initial fascination but frankly get a bit tired of after a few scenes; and in the end, I doubt few of us emotionally cares what actually happens to them. And along the way, we have had to endure some long sequences (like the above dream-accounting and party scenes) that feel as if they will never end.
Overall, Detroit is at its best if taken as an allegory of what has happened in our world of collapsed financial institutions, recalled mortgages, and lost jobs and careers. Its story provides a possible prescription of what it takes to let go and move on from a past that will never be again. Kenny and Sharon have somehow, by divine miracle or everyday happenstance, arrived into Ben’s and Mary’s life – a life that is worse off on almost every level than they have yet admitted to themselves or each other. Through these backyard, strange encounters, their truths unfold; and something happens, clearly orchestrated by these new neighbors, that strangely allows Ben and Mary finally to have and seek new dreams. As an allegory addressing our past shared-decade and a way to have new perspective, Detroit really works. As an enjoyable evening of theatre about characters whose lives and stories we care about, Detroit falls short.
Detroit has been extended at Aurora Theatre Company, Berkeley, through July 25.
Rating: 3 E