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Chicago by John Olson

Detroit
Steppenwolf Theatre

Also see John's review of Sunday In the Park With George

Detroit
Laurie Metcalf, Kate Arrington and Kevin Anderson
There are many visions of a bleak America in the future that I can recall from films: Manhattan island as a future-day Alcatraz in Escape from New York, comes to mind. So does the bombed-out "Old Detroit" of Robocop. Neither of those, with their abandoned factories and office buildings, seem quite as frightening as the vision of suburbia pictured in this new play by Lisa D'Amour.

Kevin Depinet's set shows the backsides and backyards of two homes in an "inner ring suburb" of a northern city (possibly, but not necessarily Detroit). The house on the left has peeling paint on its wood siding. The house on the right is brick, though its wood trim has peeling paint as well; and the lawn on the right is overgrown. The discount store umbrella of the patio table on the left is a safety hazard and the screen door chronically sticks. These "inner suburbs"—by definition the ones bordering the city limits and the first to welcome refugees from the inner city—were the heartland of the American dream and are now in decay.

The house on the right is the home of Ben (Ian Barford) and Mary (Laurie Metcalf). Ben became unemployed in a mass layoff at a bank and Mary is working in an unnamed but apparently dead-end job. Ben's planning to launch a career as an independent financial advisor just as soon as he gets his website built, apparently having given up on getting another full-time job. Their new neighbors, Kenny (Kevin Anderson) and Sharon (Kate Arrington), have been invited over for a cookout, and their economic prospects are grim as well. It's slowly revealed that the two are recovering drug addicts and alcoholics (they met in rehab) and are living rent-free in the house, thanks to the generosity of a great-aunt. If not for Ben and Mary's downward mobility, they might never have taken the time to meet the new neighbors, an act of kindness for which Sharon expresses eternal gratitude in a rambling monologue.

D'Amour's play couldn't be more topical if it were improvised on the spot and indeed it has an improvisational tone. The barely linear action has Ben and Mary first warming up to the mysterious neighbors, then gradually joining Sharon and Kenny on their level, shedding their sense of responsibility and taking the formerly well-to-do couple farther away from the sorts of routines and goals of the middle class with which Ben and Mary can no longer really identify. Drugs and alcohol return to their lives and consequences of actions begin to seem irrelevant, as all the rules of hard work and responsibility seem no longer relevant. The very real nightmare of today's recession and foreclosure-riddled America is right on stage.

Director Austin Pendleton finds just the right tone for the piece: offbeat, but totally grounded in recognizable behaviors. Laurie Metcalf is perfect as the sort of lower-middle working class woman she played on TV in "Rosanne," and Ian Barford has perfected the archetype of contemporary self-delusional chump that he played in Steppenwolf's Up last season. Kevin Anderson is deliciously uncouth as the ragged con-artist Kenny, and Kate Arrington is a winner as the seemingly clueless Sharon. She shows a naivete that proves she and Kenny are from a different world than the one Ben and Mary had known. When Sharon asks the neighbors if they've ever had twice-baked potatoes, her emphasis on the word "twice" suggests awe at such an exotic thing. Robert Breuler has an air of resignation and wisdom as a character who appears briefly just before the end of the play. His character is introduced with a monologue that goes on for quite awhile before revealing who he is or why he's important. Call me lazy for not wanting to listen so hard, but that's a writing device that's become tiresome.

As previously noted, the play is not literally set in Detroit. D'Amour makes no specific reference to the Motor City. Her characters, in their believable-sounding banter, refer to specific Interstate beltways that actually ring a variety of northern cities. Any who might be tempted to dismiss this picture of today's economic despair as emblematic of the long-beleaguered Michigan metropolis should be warned—this bell tolls for thee.

Detroit will be performed at the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, through November 7, 2010. Tickets are available at the box office, by phone at 312-335-1650 or online at www.steppenwolf.org.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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