Theater review: ‘Detroit’ gets down to particular cases

Lisa D'Amour's fine play about two suburban couples gets a well-acted production from Portland Playhouse

Brooke Totman toasts the company in "Detroit" at Portland Playhouse.

Brooke Totman toasts the company in “Detroit” at Portland Playhouse.

Pretty quickly in Lisa D’Amour’s “Detroit,” now playing at Portland Playhouse, the lay of the land becomes apparent. Frank and Mary live in an old suburb of some unnamed city (Detroit itself never gets a shoutout). Mary’s a paralegal who is developing a taste for expensive food, and Ben is starting a financial advice service with the severance he received from his old job at the bank. Life could be better.

As the play begins, they are getting together for a backyard cook-out with Kenny and Sharon, who just moved in next door but occupy a lower rung on the economic ladder. Sharon works at a call center, and Kenny’s a warehouseman. They’ve only managed to crash this neighborhood because they are living in Kenny’s great-aunt’s house. Or something like that. Life could be a whole lot better.

They live on Sunshine Way, close to Ultraviolet Lane and Fluorescent Avenue.

Ben and Mary, Kenny and Sharon. No one is special, and nothing all that special happens to them in the course of the play, well, except for the odd catastrophe, and even that’s no big deal. Nobody symbolizes anything, no one is a stock character, nothing much happens, the politics of it are in deep subtext (if they are there at all), the conflicts are mostly inner ones, though sometimes couples do disagree. And yet “Detroit” is mesmerizing, maybe because we so seldom see people like this. The genius of D’Amour in “Detroit” is how particular her characters are, and how true that particularity seems to us. The strength of this production is the ability of its cast to deliver those characters clearly, despite their inevitable complexity.

****

This happens to be a minority opinion about the play. Most critics and theater people have viewed “Detroit,” written in 2009, as a commentary on hard economic times in the real Detroit and by extension the rest of the country. They project powerfully into this space, into the little stories of the characters, and see: “A sharp X-ray of the embattled American psyche as well as a smart, tart critique of the country’s fraying social fabric…,” per New York Times critic Christopher Isherwood, in a much quoted blurb for the show, for example.

Other critics have followed suit and so have theater people, such as Anne Kaufman, who directed the New York production, and Brian Weaver, who directs the Portland Playhouse version. The spin in Weaver’s director’s notes is that the play is both about the crumbling American Dream and the opportunity to build something from the ashes.

So who am I to disagree? Well, just your neighborhood theater writer, and I do have a little support on my side from the director of the Woolly Mammoth version, John Vreeke, who said, “I hardly see politics at all.” Then I have another key piece of evidence. Not that I think authorial intent is THE critical factor in determining the meaning of a play, but here’s D’Amour talking to Nelson Pressley of the Washington Post (where Kaufman and Vreeke are quoted).

“I didn’t intentionally set out to write a play about what happens when you suddenly have to reinvent yourself in really precarious financial times,” D’Amour told him. She went on: “My dad is 70, and he is one of those people whose retirement has been very impacted by these crashes. He is going to retire now, but man, it’s been a really stressful four years trying to figure it all out. But I think if I were consciously to write about all that, just because of the writer I am, I don’t know if the play would have been as strong.”

Still, Pressley is sure that “the crash plainly fed the play.” Even though the piece of evidence he cites—the fact that D’Amour and her husband, because they were used to the itinerant life of theater people, didn’t really feel the impact—is actually an argument against that characterization. When an interpretation becomes firmly embedded in the critical apparatus of a play, it can be pretty stubborn.

****

“Detroit” was a finalist for both Pulitzer and Susan Smith Blackburn prizes, and it won the Obie Award for best new American play. Ot IS that good, I think, but not because it’s a sociological study. I’m suggesting that “Detroit” is a better play than that. I love its informality, its simple structure, its little episodes, each another cookout as time passes in the lives of our four non-heroes.

“Detroit” is funny, but not that “knowing” kind of humor. It takes its characters seriously, and gives them moments of deep insight into their condition(s) and the ability to express those insights in colorful language: It IS a play, after all, not a cinema verité. But it doesn’t have an arch bone in its body. Or a pretentious one. And if I thought it was attempting to make a grand statement on the condition of America after the crash of 2008-09, I’d be arguing right now about how it didn’t consider this or consider that or underplayed something else.

D’Amour catches us in our unease, sure. But all that means is that “Detroit” could have been written almost anytime since the ‘70s, because times and wages for “ordinary people” haven’t been very good for a long time.

Ordinary but particular people: Ben used to be a loan officer, and maybe we have an idea about who a loan officer is. No, Ben proves that we don’t, especially in the hands of  Jason Rouse, who keeps him simple but distinct, a handy man to have at the grill and with a bit of “wisdom” he’s picked up in a book, a large man with an internet secret.

Victor Mack and Jason Rouse make plans in "Detroit."/Courtesy Portland Playhouse

Victor Mack and Jason Rouse make plans in “Detroit.”/Courtesy Portland Playhouse

Ben’s likable, but so are they all, really, except maybe for Mary when she’s had a few drinks and turns a little nasty, which migrates to weepy, and then all is forgiven. Mary has some aspirations for Ben’s website business and maybe for better and better brands of caviar, and that makes her the climber in the bunch. But then she also wants to go off and live in a tent. Or at least camp overnight. Ordinary people—maybe we aren’t all that consistent. Brooke Totman as Mary starts it all off on the ditzy blonde side (as does Kelly Tallent as Sharon), but neither D’Amour nor director Brian Weaver wants her to reside there permanently, and Totman doesn’t.

Kenny and Sharon apparently met in a rehab center, though their accounts are just off enough to make us wonder about everything they tell us, because what about that story about meeting in Hot-lanta? Kenny doesn’t reveal much about himself, except when Sharon, who is liable to say almost anything personal about herself, makes it impossible not to say something in explanation for some apparent contradiction. We do learn that he has a bit of a weakness for strip clubs, and that he can wheedle a former loan officer into going with him, if given enough beer and time. And really, who could resist Victor Mack’s Kenny when he’s pitching a night on the town?

Tallent’s Sharon wanders the furthest from ordinary, I suppose, though both women characters have their share of wonderful. Even before she talks about it in the starkest terms, we get how close to the edge her addiction can drive her: “Every day really is a new day,” she says, “but, Mary, I open my eyes every morning and all I want is a pipe to smoke. It’s like there’s a fire burning in the center of my head, Mary, and the pipe is the water that will put it out.” And this pressure fractures her into shards of ideas, emotions, compassion, and hopelessness.

The play touches briefly on the emptiness of American jobs and the isolation of Americans in their suburbs, and it pokes gentle fun of those old subdivisions and their fanciful names. But the play is the people, how they interact, what they reveal, how they attempt to maintain some dignity, though we suspect that even they understand it’s a false dignity in the end. Great plays pursue the truth, and D’Amour’s after the truth of these characters, not in a philosophical or political way, just as people. Can we derive something political or philosophical from them? Sure, but I’m suggesting the details of that derivation come more from the viewer, not D’Amour.

****

Brooke Totman and Kelly Tallent in "Detroit" at Portland Playhouse.

Brooke Totman and Kelly Tallent in “Detroit” at Portland Playhouse.

I laughed a lot at “Detroit.” As some point, I realized that I liked these characters a lot. And then I started to worry for them a little, because I knew they weren’t going to stay neighbors forever. Things were just a little too unstable, on the deck, in their lives, in their minds. We were headed for a climax, maybe a big climax, that would change an arrangement that seemed both mutually beneficial and fragile.

My reading of the ending of the play isn’t as hopeful as Weaver’s is, and I don’t see “Detroit” as an invitation to share dreams and form communities. Do we really believe that Ben and Mary are headed toward happily ever after—let alone Kenny and Mary? I guess I don’t see it.

I don’t doubt their hearts, though. Or D’Amour’s. She obviously liked these guys, too, liked them enough to leave things open-ended, maybe closer for the moment after their experience, sure, but still exposed to the problems of being human.

NOTES

Although I have some points of difference with Weaver about the play, the show has great spirit and immediacy. Daniel Meeker’s set compresses the action and suggests a suburban neighborhood, and his lights open things up. Blaine Palmer, the fifth actor in the case, arrives for an explanatory, contextualizing coda that proves both clarifying and muddying at the same time.

*

Can we talk a little about Detroit? Detroit metro is a bustling place with some of the nation’s highest employment in various technology and telecommunications fields. The city center withered away, sure, as the American auto industry declined and dispersed, but the state used the enormous wealth created by that industry to build an excellent university system. As a result it managed to weather the decline of the car business. To this day Detroit metro is way bigger and way richer than Portland ever thought of being. The Detroit-Windsor area has a population of 5.7 million or so. The Detroit Symphony just raised $18.9 million in individual donations alone, far more than the total budget of the Oregon Symphony. Grosse Pointe has done just fine.

*

In 1997 D’Amour collaborated with Raindog Playwrights’ Project and the Other Side Theater on a site-specific production of “St Johns And The Suspended Vaudeville Apocalypse,” at the St. Johns Bridge.

*

I’ve picked fights with Isherwood a couple of times lately, but in general I think he’s an excellent theater writer, just for the record.

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