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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Sarah Sokolovic, Darren Pettie, David Schwimmer, and Amy Ryan.
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Detroit, which just opened at Playwrights Horizons, does not necessarily take place in that once renowned, now sadly infamous Michigan city—nor, for that matter, is it ever mentioned in the dialogue. But the ghost of that place's former greatness, of its limitless prosperity gutted and soaring spirit diminished, hangs over every second of Lisa D'Amour's outstanding play. D'Amour has created an inescapably crushing American tale about how we cope with—or fall prey to—hardship today, and the impact it has on us that extends well below what we can articulate, that nonetheless maintains a serene beauty throughout its myriad depictions of economic-induced ugliness.

Despite its shattering subject and potentially deflating underpinnings, however, Detroit is in no way depressing. Its first scene, for example, doesn't merely suggest effervescent comedy is possible within the envelope of hopelessness, it delivers it. A backyard barbecue at the suburban home of Mary and Ben (Amy Ryan and David Schwimmer) starts off like a typically lighthearted take on physical clumsiness and awkward social mores. While the couple is entertaining neighbors Kenny and Sharon (Darren Pettie and Sarah Sokolovic), Mary and Ben can't make anything work quite right. The sliding glass door into the house won't open properly, the picnic umbrella shading the patio table won't stay open (and even injures Kenny at one point), and the table itself seems to be falling apart. That such things could happen to such an obviously outwardly affluent couple strikes as a source of honest, if shopworn, comedy.

But once D'Amour pulls back, the picture is a far more nuanced and unsettling one. Mary may work at a law firm, but she's only a paralegal, and she's supporting Ben, who was recently laid off from his high-paying bank job. Now at home all day, craving a fantasy life in a different country, he's without prospects—though he has conceived an idea for a private consulting business, and speaks endlessly about the website he's designing for it. Kenny and Sharon, who begin self-conscious about their own problems (both are recovering drug addicts, he works in a warehouse and she in a customer service phone bank, and the deceased relative's house they just moved into contains no furniture), slowly see that "better off" is, at best, a relative term.

All this doesn't form the background of the story, it forms the entirety of it. D'Amour devotes the balance of the show's 100 minutes to exploring how each of the quartet deals with the rapidly disintegrating situation, both alone and with the others: Mary is developing a drinking problem and is in deep denial about the perilous waters in which she's treading (she can't stop buying expensive food, including delicacies like caviar, for her socializing), Sharon can't stop crying, Kenny and Ben inspire each other in exactly the wrong ways, and both the men and the women form awkward friendships with each other that are designed to bolster their weaknesses but somehow accentuate them instead. Strictly speaking, the conceit is not that original.

Yet it never gets old and, in fact, only strengthens as events unfold and everyone is revealed to be someone very different than he or she appears, which forces you to reconsider your own presumptions and prejudices. D'Amour's plotting is deft and subtle, igniting tragedies both big and small while your attention is focused elsewhere, then yanking you back into a very different reality than the one you had been ignoring. In this world, the people are linked to each other, to the community they inhabit, and to the system that constrains them, and the more the connections are revealed and tested, the more riveting the evening becomes.

The writing receives sterling support from director Anne Kauffman, who maintains the pungent pacing of a sitcom while equally highlighting the melancholy and bitter levity that constitute so much of the central quartet's lives. The performances, too, are expert. Schwimmer is sobering as Ben, all broken-down bravado that reveals a man who's become so at odds with himself he no longer knows who he is; Pettie provides a thoroughly compelling Kenny, making him rigidly believable as someone who's built his entire adult life on lies and is now paying the price; Ryan and Sokolovic craft deeply sympathetic yet steely eyed portrayals of women struggling to come to terms with their increasing inabilities to function as emotional rocks and monetary breadwinners; and John Cullum is quietly forceful when he appears in the last few moments to spout some hard-to-accept truths everyone needs to hear.

As good as all the individual elements are—including Louisa Thompson's revolving set, which instantly moves us between the neighbors' yards, and is thoughtfully and mournfully lit by Mark Barton—the underlying play is even better. D'Amour may have faced overwhelming odds when her work was squaring off against Bruce Norris's rollicking race deconstruction, Clybourne Park, for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2011, but it's a powerful and worthy piece that speaks with chilling clarity about the land we live in. Everyone has been ravaged in one way or another by the recent financial crisis, but it's their souls more than their portfolios that are in tatters. Locked within jobs they hate, jobs they're too good for, or jobs they've outgrown, all because there's nothing else available, they're left with nothing to do but turn on each other and themselves.

Of course, because they lack the energy and the resources to do even that effectively, they're rendered little more than clawless cats pawing at scratching posts, something they—and we—know cannot continue forever. They conclude that they're destined to fail, and maybe they are. But, D'Amour asks so bracingly, would even their success matter if it occurs in the midst of circumstances that are ultimately dehumanizing? Whatever your answer to that, Detroit itself is as human and affecting a play as New York has seen in years.

Through October 7
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
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