During the talkback following a performance of Curious Theatre Company’s Detroit, an audience member asked: “What was the play’s message?” This isn’t a question I normally ask — I’ve never thought that works of art need messages — but in this case, the query was right on the money. There’s something missing from this play — if not a direct message, then certainly clarity of purpose. A Pulitzer finalist by Lisa D’Amour, Detroit is intelligent, absorbing, lively, surprising and often evocative; it keeps you on your toes and makes for a good evening of theater. But beyond the entertaining portraits that it presents of a pair of neighboring couples — four eccentric, lost people, all floundering in different ways — there isn’t a whole lot of there there. Class issues are evoked, as the title suggests, but they feel extraneous to the central energy, as does all the dialogue about the meaning of community, suburbia and the state of the country. That energy focuses on the characters’ muddled and dream-filled (literally — several dreams are described) but not very convincing inner lives.
Mary and Ben have been living smack in the middle of the middle class: He’s a bank-loan officer and she’s a paralegal. But Ben has been laid off, and though they still live in their neat suburban home, they can feel the foundations of their life together crumbling — symbolized by, among other things, a constantly jamming French door. At a backyard barbecue, they are entertaining their new neighbors, Sharon and Kenny, recovering addicts who met in a rehab program. Sharon and Kenny are flat broke, and their recovery proves as short-lived as you’d expect. Mary’s an addict, too, but her addiction is socially acceptable: She’s an alcoholic. And while Sharon and Kenny improvise their way through life, Mary tries desperately for control. Soon Sharon and Kenny are reciprocating their new friends’ hospitality, except that instead of steaks and caviar, Kenny is cooking hamburgers with balls of cheese inside.
Part of the problem is that the title leads you to expect an entirely different play. Anyone who follows the news at all knows something about the drastic conditions in Detroit, where many people live in abject poverty, tens of thousands saw their water shut off last year because they were unable to pay their bills, and a desperation move to sell the priceless works in the Detroit Institute of Art was barely averted. D’Amour obviously knows this could be a problem: In the program, she says the setting isn’t actually Detroit, but “a ‘first ring’ suburb outside of a mid-sized American city.”
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Much of the meaning in Detroit is communicated through imagery and symbolism. The characters’ constant injuries symbolize something. So do Kenny’s unfinished porch and the ever-drooping umbrella on Ben and Mary’s patio table. Some of the dreams are richly expressive. On the literal level, Sharon and Mary’s decision to camp out in the woods together makes little sense; symbolically, it evokes the persistent pastoral strain in American culture, the belief in the freeing and purifying power of untapped wilderness. While the women take off, the men contemplate a bacchanalian evening of rock music and beer; both expeditions are comically truncated. There’s nowhere for these people to go, because the old myths and consolations have disintegrated. The only possible outcome is a huge and cleansing catastrophe. But these allusions work more as poetry than drama.
The tech is fine: the loud, thumping, portentous sounds between scenes — hammering, music, thunder, a dog endlessly barking; the ever-changing sky over the detailed two-back-garden set, which goes from lyrically pale to a menacing blood-red as the action unfolds. Josh Hartwell communicates Ben’s subdued hopelessness very effectively, while Karen Slack’s prickly Mary feels a touch too close to caricature. John Ashton brings a pleasantly low-key presence to the role of Frank, Kenny’s uncle. Brian Landis Folkins keeps ambiguous Kenny’s cards close to the vest for quite some time before revealing his profound, convincing and enjoyable ease in the role. Amanda Berg Wilson’s Sharon may be wavering and confused sometimes, but she’s a magnificent embodiment of the life force, nonetheless — a nurturer at heart, but also perhaps the angel of death.
Which is perhaps a message in itself.
Detroit, presented by Curious Theatre Company through June 19, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, curioustheatre.org.