Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit is a startling, engaging, and deeply disturbing piece. A drama that begins innocuously enough and shifts gears so subtly, you hardly notice, until chaos bubbles over. It’s like watching a relaxed, subdued birthday party turn into a pantheistic orgy. When Detroit opens, Ben (Ira Steck) and Mary (Tina Parker) have invited their new neighbors, Kenny and Sharon over for a cookout. Ben is grilling supper for the four of them, and Mary is trying to adjust the cabana umbrella that will soon, unexpectedly, clobber them. Early in the meal, Sharon is overcome with emotion. She makes a very moving speech about contemporary alienation, and the unusually friendly gesture of receiving a dinner invitation, simply because they live next door. She is frank, genuine, spontaneous. She cries. This key moment sets everything else in motion. Before long Mary is stumbling over to their house in the very early hours, weeping over her troubled marriage.
Claire Floyd DeVries’ impressive, evocative set includes an actual grass yard, featuring Ben and Mary’s patio and Kenny and Sharon’s front stoop. The difference between their incomes is vivid. Even if we didn’t know that Sharon works phone support and Ben has been laid off from a job at a bank, the ramshackle appearance of Kenny (Jeremy Schwartz) and Sharon’s home makes a sharp contrast to Ben and Mary’s bourgeoisie abode. Mary confides in hushed tones that the two have no furniture. Ben dismisses this red flag as inconsequential. They also overlook the fact that their new neighbors are struggling to succeed, not long after leaving rehab. Sharon and Kenny politely refuse spirits during supper, keen to embrace their resolve for recovery. Mary and Ben take this all in stride, and rather quickly, Mary reaches out to Sharon (Jenny Ledel) eager to return to a simpler life : camping in the woods, subsisting happily with a campfire and saucepan. Ben is trying to establish a business in cyberspace, offering to help Kenny establish a solid financial base. The two women go off camping together, and just as the men are about to hit the strip joints, the ladies return, deciding their primal expedition wasn’t as gratifying as they’d imagined. An impromptu party ignites, and the guys make a run to the liquor store.
Much is made over the discrepancy in the two couples’ position on the food chain, and indeed, like any good Americans, Ben and Mary ignore these class distinctions as inconsequential snobbery. Who hasn’t known hard times or been forced to make do on a paltry income? Characters discuss the difference between the countryside before and after the encroachment of white, upper-middle class suburbia. D’Amour takes pains to lay out connections between the couples, all four of them fringe dwellers in one way or another. Ben and Mary have no other friends, and Ben belongs to a website for Americans who cultivate British alter egos. Kenny and Sharon have destructive tendencies they have cautiously concealed, but as the four become closer, they begin drinking again and the walls start to crumble. D’Amour explores several different (though overlapping) angles in Detroit. The difference between civilization and arrogance. Simplicity and savagery. Intimacy and promiscuity. Authenticity and impulse control. Poverty and bankruptcy of the soul.
Detroit feels like an allegory or dialectic that jumps the tracks. Intentionally. The American paradigm for success has failed Ben and Mary and even after catastrophe has erupted, they feel gratitude towards Sharon and Kenny. Whatever their “flaws” the two had something to offer that Mary and Ben were not getting. This revelation hits like a lightning bolt. Detroit is flabbergasting, beguiling, subversive, refusing to offer any easy answers and leaving us with a toppled hornet’s nest of questions. This is dangerous, rattling, remarkable theatre. Like a dominatrix who ignores the safe word.