Do good fences make good neighbors – or do wise neighbors make good fences? This is the question posed first and foremost, and rather tartly, by Lisa D’Amour’s new play Detroit, now running at Playwright Horizons through 28th October 2012. An excoriating look at backyard chatter and at the fallacies of modern life in a bust economy, the play focuses on two very different couples who strain to find their commonalities only to realize theirs was a precarious bond at best.
As the play begins, Ben (David Schwimmer of TV’s Friends) and Mary (Amy Ryan) are hosting their new neighbors, Sharon and Kenny, on their backyard patio. The couples discuss the usual topics – food and jobs – but somehow, Sharon (Sarah Sokolovic), younger than Mary and more emotionally volatile, finds herself in tears.
It’s a moment that raises a red flag for Ben and Mary, but one that the couple is willing to overlook – after all, Sharon and Kenny (Darren Pettie) are their neighbors. And even though Ben and Mary come to learn their new neighbors met in rehab (or did they?), there’s something downright – neighborly – about accepting people for who they strive to be instead of who they’ve been, about accepting the potential of the American dream rather than the reality.
As the play goes on, we realize that Ben and Mary, initially the “normal” ones, are far from perfect. Mary is a raging alcoholic, and Ben is an Internet entrepreneur who’s building a website for his financial planning business (he even agrees to take Kenny on as a test client, though he later attempts to assess retroactive fees for his services).
Though its themes are far from featherlight, Detroit remains a comedy first and foremost; the production is manned by a talented cast of five – our two main couples as well as Broadway legend John Cullum – who have the eccentricities and easy charms of lived-in couples down pat.
As Ben, David Schwimmer is the king of the grill; though the intricacies of his floundering business ideas consume the time he spends at home during the day, he’s content to flip patties for his wife and neighbors when called upon. As his wife Mary, Amy Ryan is the highlight of the production, brimming over, alternately, with a wifely sense of loyalty and a yearning for something more.
Kenny and Sharon are the enigmas of the play. As Sharon, Sarah Sokolovic brings a quirky, volatile charm to the role, joking one moment and crying the next. Darren Pettie is the macho flip side to Ben’s obedient husband figure within the play, reminding Ben that as men there’s a duty to their sexuality that married life only partially fulfills.
Once our two central couples have come together – Ben and Kenny share in strip clubs and financial planning aimlessly while Mary and Sharon share in nature (though they make it half way to the camp grounds before canceling plans for a weekend in the woods) – it’s only a matter of course before the bonds our central foursome have built begin to unravel.
The climactic moment occurs as the two couples share drinks and dancing in Ben and Mary’s backyard. As the mood turns exploratory, both sets of partners find themselves facing the realities of their situations and the unrevealed yearnings that have lead them to their current stations as mature, complacent adults – alive without really knowing if they’re living.
Director Anne Kauffman keeps the proceedings light, but with a heft that bubbles through the surface just often enough to remind us of the substance that lies beneath the niceties of suburban living. Occasionally the lawns to which our central couples are confined seem small, but Kauffman’s direction is for the most part aided by efficient scenic design from Louisa Thompson, who renders the couples’ respective backyards accurately within a limited playing space.
Though the production never quite hits its stride at the moments when it could take off into a more surreal, heightened zone – as during the couples’ backyard bacchanalia – there’s enough here to keep an audience engaged and thinking about how modern society has left us perhaps less concerned with our neighbors – or are they just less concerned with us?