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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Though the auto makers have made enough of a comeback to save the automobile capital from being the chief poster child for The Great Recession, it is more incumbent than ever for playwrights to explore this country's economic crisis and its effect on the American dream. Small wonder that D'Amour's play has raised her profile. Detroit was Pulitzer Prize finalist. Its Chicago debut Chicago debut was followed by a London production London production, and it's now landed at New York's prestigious Playwrights Horizon.
Anne Kauffman, who's directed D'Amour's less high profile plays in the past, moves things along at a steady tempo. The stellar cast that includes Amy Ryan, one of Steppenwolf's top thespians, making the current production worth seeing, if only to watch the skilled, delicately nuanced performances, as well as Playwright Horizon's as always outstanding stage craft.
Plays about American suburbanites whose lives go into over-the-top mode have been done aplenty. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't have another take on this theme— that is, if the truths laid bare are strong and timely stuff, as is the case wth Detroit. The set-up is familiar enough. A newly formed friendship between two couples, with the less tightly wrapped pair serving as a trigger to reveal the ripples in the other couple's surface stability. Ben and Mary (David Schwimmer and Amy Ryan), are the older, less eccentric couple. Ben is a former lending officer and one of the banks that once hired people like him fast and furiously, and laid them off just as fast when the mortgage crisis went into overdrive. That's left Ben using the grace period afforded by severance and unemployment checks to build an internet based financial service business. The arrival of Sharon and Kenny (Sarah Sokolovic and Darren Pettie) next door provides a welcome chance for him and Mary to do the normal neighborly thing and invite them to a get-acquainted barbecue.
By the time the steaks Ben is grilling are served, we know that Sharon and Kenny (Sarah Sokolovic and Darren Pettie)) are different from the friends Mary and Ben no longer seem to have. The's apparently succumbed to the sort of dangerous habits that tend to turn any aspirations of living the American Dream into a pipe dream. It doesn't take much longer to sense that these recovering drug addicts will go AWOL from their rehab program. Nor does it come as much of a surprise that Mary's concern about Ben's website being a viable enterprise is justified. It's equally clear that her drinking is a serious problem. Welcome to suburban with the American Dream in free fall!
Fortunately, the actors manage to tap into D'Amour's inclusion of the comic aspects of a situation with little to laugh about. Before Mary and Ben's efforts to enjoy the simple pleasures of a new friendship is pushed into dysfunctional high gear there's an amusing struggle with a recalcitrant patio umbrella that ends up hitting Kenny in the head. At another backyard party (Louis Thompson's set handily swivels from one patio to another), Ben's getting his leg caught in Kenny's unfinished patio is more serious, as is Mary's ever heavier drinking and Sharon's relapse into addiction.
Despite its intermittent power and humor, the big opportunity to create a plausible picture of the stresses of life without an old-fashioned neighbor-to-neighbor support system gets a bit lost as D'Amour pushes her characters into increasingly improbable and extreme actions. Instead of letting go of Ben's longstanding desire to be English and Mary's yearning for a simple life in the woods, the English thing is allowed to become a tiresome recurring joke and Mary's yen for Thoreau tranquility leads to a predictably aborted camping trip. The play's effectiveness diminishes as it moves in a more extreme direction. The friendship reaches a literally and metaphorically fiery climax at a wild, booze infused dirty dancing party that's allowed to go on too long.
The staging of that penultimate wild party scene's ending is, however, remarkably dramatic, and it does finally bring on the ever superb John Cullum for a plaintive epilogue that ties all the loose ends together. That is the loose ends about Sharon and Kenny, not the economic and social changes driving this plot and that are still very much in flux throughout the country.
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