Elevate Difference

Detroit (9/18/2010)

Chicago, Illinois

Half of the U.S. population lives in suburbs, places where there are no theres there. In the suburb outlying the eponymous city in Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit, all the streets in the Bright Homes subdivision are named after light. If Bill Vaughn’s observation is correct—“Suburbia is where the developer bulldozes out the trees, then names the streets after them”—then this particular development is consistent in its dearth of light, literal and figurative.

The lives that unwind on Sunshine Lane and Feather Boulevard portend the end of pretense and dawn of overwhelming futility, as dreams of ex-urban idylls decay along with the plywood of their construction. Director Austin Pendleton leads the sharp and talented cast—Laurie Metcalf, Kevin Anderson, Kate Arrington and Ian Barford—through a labyrinth of sharp and winding dialogue that leaves its characters stranded.

Ben and Mary are two happy homeowners who graciously welcome their neighbors, Rob and Sharon. Mary’s (Metcalf) twisted energy abounds as she offers the newcomers shelter beneath a vicious umbrella. Wired but not manic, her role is a perfect check to Ben’s persistent affability. He speaks a dialect of bonhomie that Rob (Anderson) will eventually emulate—“Let’s throw these puppies on the grill!”—or perhaps deride. Rob’s girlfriend Sharon establishes the standard of impropriety in the first scene, and in each subsequent scene emotional exposure and physical damage increase as drastically as the characters’ futures plummet.

Kevin Depinet’s set is a monumental replication of two tract home halves, thoughtful and precise: the laid-off bank worker Ben (Barford) builds the website for his nascent financial consulting business on an outdated clunking home pc. The obvious question is never addressed: how do you gain clients as a financial manager when no one has any finances to manage?

The new neighbors, Rob and Sharon (Arrington), have occupations typical of the new economy: warehouse worker and call-center service representative. The individuals, the community, the nation—all are going down in a spiral of low wages and lower expectations. Recovering addicts Rob and Sharon fall off the wagon, at first “just for one day.” In the few days of camaraderie between these old and new suburbanites, the veneer of civilization, is degraded unto destruction, but the viewer is not certain why. Were Ben and Mary primed for annihilation by recent events? Was the community’s stability in comparison to explosive cities always tenuous at best? The two couples sling finely crafted banter culminating in a bacchanal, and then Robert Brueler appears in a final scene in order to provide revelatory details and reminisce about the golden age of Bright Homes, of lights and gardens and children rushing to greet fathers emerging from cars as they returned from work at five o’clock. The closing monologue comes across as a somewhat sentimental ramble at the end of a superbly executed farce.

The play entertains, but audience members might depart with the certainty that the theater was aiming for something more. For some there there.

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

Detroit runs through November 7.

Written by: Erika Mikkalo, October 2nd 2010