Let’s face it: the economy still sucks. What to do? Party! That, at least, is the answer of the two married couples at the heart of Detroit, Lisa D’Amour’s terrifically funny new work at Playwright Horizons. In this interval-less, dark comedy set in a nameless housing tract possibly outside the title city, four adults attempt to persuade each other that they are holding it together – emotionally, financially – until the charade falls apart.
As portrayed by Amy Ryan, an actor known for her intensity in movies such as Gone Baby Gone, Mary works as a paralegal. Her husband, Ben, who has been made redundant by a bank and whose idea of happiness is barbecuing steaks, is attempting to establish an online credit consulting business. Their new neighbours, Kenny and Sharon, who met in rehab, work dead-end jobs.
For the first two or three scenes of this evening, directed by Anne Kauffman, the characters share meals or moments outside their houses, and engage in banal, lame-jokey conversations at a barely TV-sitcom level. Snakes, however, soon enter the garden. The men injure themselves, prompting the flow of blood. Sharon (Sarah Sokolovic) starts drinking again, and confesses the weakness in a scene that shows Sokolovic at her most acute.
How, you ask yourself, can the relatively stable Ben and Mary be so attracted to the struggling Sharon and Kenny, when the latter couple are so destitute that their house is devoid of furniture? D’Amour’s canny narrative construction, as well as the skill of the ensemble – including the seductive Darren Pettie as Kenny and the beautifully frustrated David Schwimmer as Ben – conspire to set up the uninhibited celebration party in the drama’s penultimate scene. Under the inducement of alcohol and the encouragement of their relapsing neighbours, Ben and Mary cast off their constraints. Dancing to funky hip-hop, the couples test their limits.
When Detroit premiered two years ago at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, some observers saw the story as reflecting an economy shorn of opportunity. For me, the comedy’s impact transcends our historical moment. Without wanting to oversell its intelligence (some of D’Amour’s dialogue is painfully flat), the narrative struck me more forcefully as a story of how the primitive lurks always beneath the polite. All it takes is a few drinks to send all our illusions crashing to earth.