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"Detroit" Review: There Goes the Neighborhood

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It is hardly news that Suburbia, U.S.A., is not what it used to be. After seeing Lisa D'Amour's play Detroit, which opened last night at Playwrights Horizons, one may wonder whether there is any hope left for the old neighborhood.

The lights come up on Mary and Ben's backyard patio. It's the typical Norman Rockwell model: a sliding glass door leads to a flagstone terrace furnished with a round table and an umbrella in the middle, a barbecue grill and ice chest on the side. None of it will survive the final curtain.

Mary and Ben are entertaining Sharon and Kenny, their new next-door neighbors, and from the first faltering conversation it quickly becomes clear that nothing is right about this picture. Ben has been laid off from the bank, but is trying to put up a Web site offering his services as a consultant. Mary is still holding down her job as a paralegal. Kenny and Sharon are more hesitant about their situation. He says he works at a warehouse; she says she answers phones.
For a backyard cookout, it is all rather awkward. Nobody knows what to talk about.

Mary runs on about a painful wart she has on her foot. Sharon is more than a little weird, becoming weepy as she observes no one asks neighbors to dinner nowadays and that kids don't play on the streets any more. Sharon and Kenny confide that they met at a drug rehab, and the house they've moved into next door belongs to Kenny's uncle. Is any of this true? The doubts begin to multiply.

In scenes that follow, Detroit goes off in several different directions. D'Amour is an imaginative writer who is not afraid to take risks, and she has a real talent for creating tension and conflict in a scene. Detroit is an ambitious play, but there is little cohesion to the narrative or even continuity to the characters.

In one early scene, for example, a clearly drunken Mary pays a midnight visit to Sharon to complain about Ben's behavior. When Sharon suggests to Mary she can get help for her drinking problem, Mary angrily denies she has one. But apart from one other scene, in which Ben refuses to get his wife a vodka, the issue of Mary's incipient alcoholism is dropped altogether.

Vignette jumps to vignette, and it is hard to get a grasp on any single thread to tie it all together. The characters the audience meets at the outset become quite different characters in subsequent scenes. A spectacular and apocalyptic ending, a metaphor of sorts for D'Amour's main theme, oddly seems to have no effect on Mary and Ben.

Anne Kauffman's direction is mostly smooth, although at times it verges on the hectic, especially in one animated scene in which Kenny, now drinking again, tries to convince Ben to go on a "boys' night out" while the girls have gone camping, and another toward the end in which a long, frenzied dance sequence among all four characters simply goes on too long.

An able cast keeps the audience engaged through most of the play. Sarah Sokolovic is especially good as Sharon, a loose cannon whose mood swings are as unpredictable as a pinball. As Ben and Mary, David Schwimmer and Amy Ryan give solid impersonations of a couple with a plan for the future, except they don't have one. And Darren Pettie portrays Kenny as the sort of oddball one would cross the street to avoid. John Cullum comes on at the end with a monologue to answer some questions that the play leaves hanging. Louisa Thompson's sets, which quickly move from one tract house to another, are meticulous in their detail.