Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Detroit: Neighbors in the Modern World

"We deserve it."  Giving yourself what you want in adulthood often feels selfish, irresponsible, or reckless.  In Detroit, a new play by Lisa D'Amour, she explores how two suburban couples toy with friendship, freedom, exploration, and personal fulfillment.  The two couples become uncoupled by the consequences of meeting their neighbors.  This play asks the question why we don't open our lives up to our neighbors anymore.  Suburban life never felt so isolating or detached as it does in this production directed by Anne Kauffman (Maple and Vine) and starring Amy Ryan, David Schwimmer, Darren Pettie, and Sarah Sokolovic.  Every character is searching for a salve for their life, but like the characters I did not find the relief I was looking for here. 

Vintage backyard.
A laid off loan officer, Ben (Schwimmer), and his paralegal wife, Mary (Ryan), spy new neighbors who have moved in next door and convince them to come over for a backyard barbecue.  Awkwardness and tension carry the day in their first few meetings.  Sharon (Sokolovic) is a little too emotionally accessible and her husband Kenny (Pettie) is a little too easy-going when he takes a blow to the head by an unpredictable patio umbrella.  Mary is a little too worried about making everything perfect and Mary's husband Ben is pretty oblivious to most things around him.  These friendships grow with unexpected confessions and a craving for understanding.  What starts out stilted ends with euphoric release but this dance around neighborly closeness is a messy one.

I found the play and production to be interesting intellectually but it did not engage me emotionally.  The writing captures crisp images of the plastic world of the suburbs: a jogger in a pink jogging suit, a pet dog that does not exist, fake plants, and the time spent over the "hearth" of the patio barbecue.  These everyday and commonplace items are imbued with deeper, darker meaning.  I was curious to see where this exploration of the idealized suburb versus reality would go.  But something about this production felt off-kilter.  I'm not sure if it was the intentional awkwardness of the script or simply that the cast had not come together at the point at which I saw the play but everything felt very disjointed and the emotional punch never came for me.  The characters might be broken in a variety of ways but I never quite felt their pain.  Much of the production is played for comedy.  Although comedy can often heighten tragedy (Sydney Theatre Co's. Uncle Vanya comes to mind), here it did not seem to enrich the character development or emotional stakes for me.  I did not feel the bite of the satire. 

The play makes much of people saying they want to change their situation in grand ways but the punchline of life is that if change comes it is often in very small measures--or Godot-like waiting for something that is never to come.  Practically imperceptible change is happening to the characters in this play but without feeling the dramatic pull forward (there is a yank forward at the end), this lack of momentum left me unsatisfied. 

Pettie and Sokolovic were believable as a couple sharing their troubles openly. I liked the rawness of their characters and how Sokolovic's Sharon was overspilling with emotion.  Ryan and Schwimmer had the harder job of portraying a couple whose identities were lost even from themselves.  Much of their emotional lives lay buried beneath a thick plastic veneer of bonhomie.  But they did not have a lot of space in the play to reveal what was under there.  Later as the relationships deepen between the couples there was something gripping to Ryan and Sokolovic's friendship and their strange connection.  But it felt fleeting and not sustained.  I thought the performers handled the material well, I just found the production more awkward than affecting.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you! I was reading some of the rave reviews and wondering what I was missing. Glad I'm not alone. I knew I could count on you.