First Nighter: Lisa d'Amour's Motor City Tragi-Comedy Detroit Needs Bodywork

09/18/2012 10:21 pm ET | Updated Nov 18, 2012

When Barack Obama and Mitt Romney waxed enthusiastic about America's bright future at their separate conventions, one person who would undoubtedly have taken great issue with the prognosis was Lisa D'Amour. She predicts quite the opposite in her play Detroit, a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist, which comes to the Manhattan's Playwrights Horizons all but anointed after its Chicago debut last year and its follow-up production at London's National Theatre.

Indeed, Faber and Faber's published version of the script includes on the cover a quote from the New York Times's Charles Isherwood who maintains the tragi-comedy "speaks to the fractious American moment more perceptively than any play I've seen on a New York stage."

Certainly, D'Amour's work speaks about the decline of America in a manner President Obama and Governor Romney wouldn't care to acknowledge but that has been a popular take on society with playwrights for some time, perhaps most recently in Bruce Norris's Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park.

The erosion of once pleasant neighborhood communities that Norris discusses is once again probed by D'Amour, although she becomes more histrionic than Norris about the crisis as she approaches her inflammatory conclusion. And during the play, which features a certain amount of humor about suburban life before it gets darkly serious, she also offers the currently trendy excoriation of the country's descent into rubble -- a contention, by the way, British critics are always happy to commend.

D'Amour points out in her stage directions that the play takes place in a "'first ring' suburb outside of a mid-size American city" and is "not necessarily Detroit." In this manner she underlines her intention that the locale is Everysuburb and Detroit is simply a metaphor, a synecdoche.

The action unfolds in the front and back yards of two middle-to-lower-class development-type homes. (Louisa Thompson designed the neatly revolving set). The similar houses are inhabited by either Ben (David Schwimmer, bringing his well-honed sitcom craft into effective play) and Mary (Amy Ryan, always adept at female uncertainty) or by Kenny (Darren Pettie, endlessly kinetic) and Sharon (Sarah Sokolovic, nicely, lankily enigmatic).

At the outset, Ben and Mary, grilling dinner for acquaintances Kenny and Sharon, appear to be an average settled couple, while the next-door new-comers -- who report they met at a drink-and-drugs rehab -- have a less confident history. It doesn't take long, however, for laid-off Ben's boasts about starting a consulting website to register as suspicious and Mary's nervous good nature to be revealed as alcoholism in denial. Nor does it take long for Kenny and Sharon's past to leak hints that they aren't going to serve as ameliorating influences.

Rather quickly, it becomes obvious that D'Amour is putting on display two contemporary Everycouples who -- despite their thin veneer of well-being and as a result of their deep-seated despair -- are inexorably and dizzyingly spiraling downward.

D'Amour's intentions might be accepted, and even applauded, if she supported her characters with three-dimensional grounding. But here's where she allows herself to believe that presenting a gloomy prediction of national spoilage is all she needs to do. (Or is she just being lazy?) Whatever has gone wrong, she presents an argument without substantiation. Too little is known about all four figures. More than that, D'Amour raises questions about them that go unanswered.

For instance, at the opening get-acquainted barbeque when Sharon mentions that no one invites neighbors over for dinner anymore, Ben replies, "We don't have any friends." The line gets laughs -- surely in part because Schwimmer had at least five close friends on television's Friends -- but it also prompts the audience to wonder why the nice pair have no chums. Or, for that matter, no family and no children. There's a throwaway line about Ben and Mary continuing to think about having children. But that raises yet another question having to do with why they--clearly married for some time -- are still mulling the issue over.

And so it goes throughout a play where from the start strong bonding between the two couples as written seems unlikely and the closer they become -- at one point, Mary and Sharon plan a camping trip together for spurious reasons -- the less likely the connection seems. Even as played well by the cast and directed admirably by Anne Kauffman, the disintegrating proceedings are never completely persuasive.

Maybe it's easiest to say that the acclaimed D'Amour is in a Detroit state of mind but ultimately doesn't meet the challenge to realize convincingly what that state of mind means to her.