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A CurtainUp Review

I'm supposed to set goals and maybe take night classes that will expand my horizons. And I guess that works, Mary, I guess so. But to be honest, I feel like the real opportunities are the ones that fall into your lap. Like winning the lottery or someone's rich uncle needing a personal assistant.—Sharon
counterclockwise from upper left: Kate Arrington, Ian Barford, Kevin Anderson and Laurie Metcalf
(Photo by Michael Brosilow)
This new work by Lisa D'Amour is set in a "first ring" suburb of "a mid-sized American city." (Could it be Detroit, I wonder, or is the title just playing coy?) Full of quirks and contradictions, these 140 minutes prove, as if any were required, that neighbors can be nuts, that all human communication has failed like the plywood fastenings of these decrepit post-World War II bungalows, and that craziness is contagious circa 2010. Stop the presses! (a phrase that, alas, may mean very little in about ten years). The suburban fantasy, like the American dream, is over.

In Austin Pendleton's appropriately manic Steppenwolf staging, madcap Laurie Metcalf predictably plays madcap Mary, an alkie with an irritating planter's wart, plenty of paranoia, and enough dysfunctional drawbacks to warrant being surrounded by permanent yellow tape. She's married to Ben (Ian Barford), a wanna-be Englishman who may or may not be creating a website for credit consultation but has definitely lost his job for what could be a multitude of reasons.

Along with a garland of grotesque gossip, the play consists of escalating demented encounters between this older couple and their younger next-door neighbors who, with next to no furniture or clothes, are more squatters than residents in their life-size abode. Sharon (an energetic Kate Arrington) is a paralegal and substance abuser whose equally defective mate Kenny (Chicago treasure Kevin Anderson) is just as content with the actuality of his "at zero" existence.

Leading lives of very unquiet desperation, this quartet indulge in backyard barbecues that are caricatures of the usual suburban sitcom stereotypes. An umbrella collapses and injures Ben who later falls through Kenny's broken-down deck. The girls get lost trying to camp out in the wild, while the guys fail to slip off to watch strippers. Stuff gets broken or burned, including, finally, Mary and Ben's entire house after which the pyromaniac neighbors disappear. Finally, their uncle (affable Robert Breuler) appears just in time to point the paltry lesson the play provides — that there was a time when people on this block actually connected, not to destroy each other, but to enjoy life's little pleasures. Few such joys are remotely possible in Lisa D'Amour's deeply but not interestingly disturbed realm of the damned. It's so easy to look down on these characters that we can only feel guilty by association.

Taking the worst cue from the hysterical dialogue, director Pendleton has instructed his four neighbors to scream hysterically and fuck the motivation. They dance like drunken dervishes. They run around like kids on steroids. They describe their wacky dreams as if they were self-fulfilling prophecies. They howl out their losses to the stars and rage that somehow that's not enough to fix them. You can feel their pain, at least in the acting, and for some that can be enough truth-telling for their tickets.

The bedrock reality of this transient trifle isn't the whimsical to incoherent dialogue. It's Kevin Depinet's life-sized suburban shelters (they don't deserve to be called homes). People could actually live in and on this set. Somehow you know that any improvised personae that they would create in the process would be much more interesting than anything you'll endure in this depressing Detroit.

There are bitter truths here, strong stuff that Steppenwolf can tell well. For all their lack of originality (but not of expiration dates), they're still worth hearing and telling. Before the play goes off the deep end, it delivers many recognizable shocks of recognition. As always, Austin Pendleton can find a passionate presence even in a play's absence (of ideas, freshness or warmth).

Detroit by Lisa D'Amour
Directed by Austin Pendleton

Cast: Kevin Anderson (Kenny), Kate Arrington (Sharon), Ian Barford (Ben),Robert Breuler (Frank) and Laurie Metcalf (Mary).
Sets by Kevin Depinet
Costumes by Rachel Healy
Lighting by Kevin Rigdon
Music and sound by Josh Schmidt
Dramaturge, Polly Carl
Choreography by Tommy Rapley
Fight choreographer, Matt Hawkins
Steppenwolf Theater Company, at the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theater, 1650 North Halsted Street, Chicago; (312) 335-1650,
From 9/18/10 to 11/07/10
Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes
Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer 10/23/10
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