The title may seem like a clue, but we never actually find out the name of the city where the characters in Lisa D’Amour’s award-winning play Detroit actually live. Two couples occupy two neighboring houses in an anonymous, anytown American suburb where the streets are named for different forms of light: Bright Street, Rainbow Way and so on. The play, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2011, is having its Atlanta premiere at Horizon Theatre through October 19.
Mary and Ben (Carolyn Cook and Mark Cabus) are an aspirational professional couple who have fallen on some tough times. Ben has recently been laid off from his bank job, presenting an obstacle to Mary’s ever more precarious plans for a comfortable, peaceful and productive upwardly mobile married life.
Next door are the new neighbors — new squatters really — Sharon and Kenny (Kylie Brown and Adam Fristoe) who are fresh out of drug rehab. Unlike Mary and Ben, they don’t bother a lot with niceties like dreams, plans, jobs, curtains or furniture. Where Mary and Ben are careful, polite and guarded, Sharon and Ken are impulsive, instinctual, emotional, even primal.
It’s hard to tell which characters are on their way up to a better life, which are on their way down and which have stalled out completely. Nonetheless, fate and the new American economy have brought them together for the moment, and the four of them end up gathering for a doozy of a cookout.
It’s a great setup for a play, and the show gets a lot of mileage out of showing us the uneasy, mutable, even volatile relationships between the characters. Carolyn Cook is especially fine as the desperately hopeful and needy Mary. But what’s primarily interesting about the script is the notion that the two couples are somehow parallel in spite of their differences in class and outlook. In the Horizon production, there’s an age disparity between the two couples, and the play becomes a noisy, goofy, familiar story of generational clash: the looser, freer youth vs. the more uptight suburban yuppies.
The production has trouble settling on a discernible, consistent tone.We veer from moments of bleak, Pinteresque menace to broadly silly situation comedy, and ultimately to throbbing, strobe-lighted chaos. There are some fantastically surprising moments — a simple backyard accident suddenly changes the dynamics in a deliciously wicked way — but somehow nothing seems to truly build off of anything else. A backyard bonfire turns into a scene of animalistic chaos, but a long scene of physical and emotional abandon is difficult to create convincingly on stage, and this crucial scene feels effortful and artificial.
To reveal what happens at the end of the play would be a spoiler, but the set has to undergo a major transformation, and it has to be said that set designers Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay nail the creepy, familiar backyard intimacy, near claustrophobia, needed for the first part of the show’s action. Then, impressively, everything turns around quickly and efficiently to show us the devastation of the second.
The most interesting notions in the play seem to be derived from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with its two sets of couples, and Detroit‘s best moments emulate that show’s radioactive, unsettled bondings, alliances, flirtations and sparrings. But the characters in Detroit, like the title itself, arrive pre-interpreted as symbols of our times. It’s surprising but leadenly uninteresting that it all ends with some Mad Men–style nostalgia for another era’s alleged simplicity and prosperity.
After we take in the play’s setup, we brace ourselves to see contemporary American life brutally skewered. Watching the show should give us the visceral feeling of having a protective bandage being ripped off all at once — this is what the play is plainly aiming for. All preparations are made for that painful moment of vision and recognition, but it never really arrives.