Something's rotten in the state of "Detroit".
Playwright Lisa D'Amour was in a prescient state of mind three years ago when she entitled her play "Detroit", before she'd ever been there.
It opened in D.C. less than two months after Detroit declared bankruptcy July 18, the largest city bankruptcy in America's history.
Detroit could be anywhere, U.S.A., and the drama's two suburban couples could be anyone: "Our financial lives're swirling around in a homemade toilet bowl," as Kenny (Danny Gavigan) aptly describes it.
Then again, "When you're at zero, there is total possibility," says his frenzied, ditsy wife Sharon (Gabriela Fernández-Coffey). They'd met at a drug and alcohol rehab facility.
Just when you're at zero, emotionally drained by this disturbing hurly-burly backyard bar-b-que, where everyone gets raked over the coals, you start laughing.
"Neighbors -- why's that word even in the dictionary anymore? It's archaic," opines Sharon, who's so happy that her neighbors speak to her, she weeps in their backyard.
To Kenny's proverbial question "What do you do?" comes the reply, "I'm a deadbeat." Ben (Tim Getman) has just lost his job as a loan officer. How American can you get.
Their other stimulating topics of conversation include planter's wart, pink eye, homicidal perverts..., mostly in a manic monologue by Mary (Emily K. Townley).
Townley told me later, "This play is (Edward) Albee-esque in that you never know what the audience will laugh at. So the audience is like an additional character." She added that the play is "evolving. It'll be a little different each night."
Each character (except the audience) is struggling against at least one addiction, even to an Anglophile website and to the "NASCAR Unmasked and Personal" TV show.
Their typical "first-rung" neighborhood consists of only five styles of houses, along streets like Sunshine Way, Fluorescent Ave., and Solar Power Lane. Remind anyone of "Revolutionary Road" by Richard Yates?
The set (by Tom Kamm) and lighting (by Colin K. Bills) are stars. A backyard joins, or separates, the rears of two identical split-level houses.
Video images flash onto the houses beginning with idyllic ones like a tire swing hanging from a tree, children zipping along on little scooters, a pinwheel slowly turning. As tension heightens, each thing speeds up and then switches to flashing police lights, while Bach's Cello Suite No. 4 switches to hard rock, then to sirens, and finally to the plaintive song, "Change Is Gonna Come" (sound designed by Christopher Baine).
Few spoilers here, but the "bargain basement patio furniture" is as fragile as the characters' emotions. How can they possibly manage the intensity and physicality without breaking a leg or choking on/slipping on faux bodily effluvia...
"It's a wild ride, a sprint," Gavigan told me later. "But then there's a huge release at the end."
Getman told me, "It's about where we are in this country today. And it's also about telling the truth, listening to each other, hearing each other." Getman's restrained performance gave complexity, suspense, and power to his character.
This riveting desperate drama, directed by John Vreeke, was a kick-ass kick-off for Woolly's 34th season, entitled "America's Tell-Tale Heart".
"Detroit" is an incarnation of Poe's words in "The Tell-Tale Heart" -- "Dissemble no more! Admit the deed. Tear up the planks! Here! Here! It is the beating of his hideous heart."
Or as the Pulitzer Prize committee said of the play, a finalist in 2011, "hope is in foreclosure."
For more info and tickets: "Detroit", now through Oct. 6, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, www.woollymammoth.net/, 641 D Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. Box Office, 202-393-3939 or email@example.com. Several performances have post-show discussions, like Military Night, Oct. 3. Full 34th season, www.woollymammoth.net/season/2013-14. Playwright Lisa D'Amour, www.lisadamour.com.