10:36 am Sep. 20, 20121
Since the 2008 financial crisis, Detroit has come to occupy a central place in the American cultural imagination.
In his 2011 article "Detroitism," John Patrick Leary offers evidence of this fascination with some of the most striking recent exhibits of Detroit “ruin porn”: a series of new coffee table books of artistic photographs of the ruined urban landscape; a host of articles in major news publications; a recent graphic novel; and a number of documentaries and films. To this day, this obsession with Detroit's ruin continues, if the film Detropia, currently playing downtown at the IFC Center, is any indication.
Against this backdrop, Playwrights Horizons is presenting Detroit, a new play by downtown stalwart Lisa D’Amour, directed by Anne Kauffman. With its action set in a suburb outside a mid-sized American city—“[n]ot necessarily Detroit”—D’Amour juxtaposes the specific fate of Motor City against the allegorical space of Anycity, USA, recalling the chilling prophesy of former Detroit mayor Coleman Young: “Detroit today is your town tomorrow.”
The ruined city is a sign of the times, a synecdoche for the rigor mortis into which the American dream has sunk. As Leary writes: “Today, Detroit…is 'ground zero' of the collapse of the finance and real estate economy in America.… [I]t embodies the looming jobless future, or more precisely, our worst fears about that future.”
Ben and Mary, played by David Schwimmer and Amy Ryan, are the John and Jane Everyman that serve as the play’s allegorical center. Representatives of a middle class that is gradually slipping into precarity, their story is a familiar one. They’re in their thirties or forties, no kids. She’s a paralegal, he’s unemployed after working in a bank for eleven years before getting laid off. He has entrepreneurial ambitions, is trying to start up an online financial consultation service. She’s the sole breadwinner struggling to hold down the fort while he stays home during the days, designing the consulting website that will help them turn things around.
Enter Kenny and Sharon (Darren Pettie and Sarah Sokolovic, pictured at left; photo by Jeremy Daniel), a young couple, self described as “white trash,” who have moved into the formerly vacant house next door, both recovering addicts fresh from rehab trying to get back on their feet. His job is in a warehouse, hers is in a call center. The play opens with the four characters having a friendly barbecue in Ben and Mary’s backyard, getting to know one another. Sharon is elated and dumbfounded at the show of hospitality: “I mean who invites their neighbors over for dinner anymore? … Neighbors. I mean why is that word still in the dictionary. It's archaic. Am I saying the right word? Because you don’t need to talk to your neighbors anymore. I mean, does anyone borrow a cup of sugar anymore?” She bursts into tears. Beneath the upbeat suburban exterior, something is already deeply rotten here. The patio umbrella doesn’t seem to be working properly. The sliding glass door sticks and Ben doesn’t know how to fix it.
These signals accumulate as the play continues: the conversational landscape of Detroit is one in which phrases like “bad credit.” “mortgage rates,” “outlet stores,” and “bargain basement” abound and loom threateningly. Ben describes a book he’s been reading, a self-help/how-to guide that’s about “envisioning your life as financially sound.” None of the characters hears the hollowness that echoes in these words. In the distance, one notices the sound of police sirens and dogs barking harshly. (Junkyard Dobermans? A ghostly neighborhood stray?) Mary pours herself another cup of Vodka.
There is indeed something funny going on here, but not in the "funny ha-ha" sense. Detroit is billed as a comedy, and there are certainly some moments of touching humor in it that recall Chekhov’s attempts to reimagine comic form. David Schwimmer and Amy Ryan manage these moments passably well, but there's something goofy and telegraphic in their acting, something overdone for the intimate size of the Playwright's Horizons auditorium, as though the transition from television acting to stage acting meant everything needed to be bigger. As the increasingly unhinged Sharon on the other hand, Sarah Sokolovic gets the play's bizarre and disturbing tonal shifts, offering a uniformly solid performance that is by turns harrowing and hilarious.
But however much these characters (like Chekhov’s) are trapped within a matrix of immense, abstract forces whose destructiveness they are ill-equipped to combat or escape and whose presence is registered subtly, almost barometrically, in dinner conversation and banal chit-chat—still, the comedy label is still misleading. Neither is the play properly tragic: like so many works that focus their brooding gaze upon ruins, Detroit is profoundly melancholic.
After the play’s central reversal, which is both crushing and predictable, Sharon whispers suggestively to Ben and Mary: “When you are at zero, anything can happen.” The wretchedness that ensues from the anarchy and devastation unleashed by this injunction, however, gives the lie to its promise of limitless possibility, and the play concludes with a scene of suffering, resignation, and nostalgia.
In this way Detroit mourns not only the death of the middle class and the American dream, but also the impossibility of meaningful political action: not a whiff of insurrection breathes in these characters, other than the desire to drop out of life. Their fate is that they wouldn’t even know how to begin to protest the ruination they are slowly undergoing. Theirs is a world gripped by total alienation, one (like most dramaturgical naturalism) whose conditions are unalterable and absolutely determining.
It’s in this respect that Detroit leaves most to be desired. To be sure, D’Amour’s writing is strong, unsettling, and shrewdly observant of our current political realities, and Detroit is very nearly a dangerous play. But in giving itself over to fatalism, it lacks the spark that could set things ablaze in a truly revolutionary way. Its characters reach absolute zero in the drama’s final moments, at precisely the moment when anything is possible and the real drama ought to begin.
'Detroit'is playing at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street in Manhattan, until Friday, October 7. Tickets are $75 and can be purchased by calling 212-279-4200, or on the web here.
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