NEW YORK (AP) — There are more dangers lurking in a suburban backyard than you might think, according to Lisa D'Amour's dark new comedy, "Detroit," a Pulitzer Prize finalist last year.
The ways people try to cope with the current flatline of the American Dream are skewered in D'Amour's satiric look at the evolving relationship of two very different suburban couples. White-collar Ben and Mary are nervously clinging to their spot in the middle-class, while their free-spirited new neighbors, Kenny and Sharon, are recovering addicts with menial jobs who have nowhere to go but up.
Anne Kauffman directs the intriguing, edgy production that opened Tuesday night off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. Kauffman provides a steady pace and the performances are excellent, although the overall effect is lightweight. D'Amour's writing is filled with off-beat humor and imagery, and we get occasional glimpses of the big issues she's trying to illuminate, which include marital boredom as well as economic powerlessness and a sense of national loss and insecurity.
But a series of pointless, unfunny injuries to her likeable characters distracts from the larger themes. And as the foursome's friendship blossoms over grill and hibachi, dissatisfactions and fears bubble up and events become zanier and less believable.
David Schwimmer, well-known as a star from "Friends" but no stranger to theater, is perfectly cast as Ben, a mopey, unemployed former bank loan officer. He desperately reads nonsensical self-improvement books while trying to create a website to start a new online financial advisory business.
Schwimmer provides a wry, worried counterfoil to the exuberant acting allowed the rest of the cast. The other characters each have one or more scenes in which they get to let down their hair and display raw, humanly painful emotions.
Always-impressive Amy Ryan radiates tension and pinched anxiety as paralegal Mary, increasingly fed up with Ben's lack of income and his peculiar ongoing failure to produce a website. Ryan provides some of the more touching and genuine moments in the play, as she searches for meaning in psuedo-symbolic dreams and repeatedly expresses a wish to just go and live in a tent in the woods.
Equally effective are Sarah Sokolovic and Darren Pettie as the mysterious new neighbors, a younger couple who say they are struggling with post-rehab emotions and financial difficulties. Although Sharon and Kenny appear slightly dodgy and their backstory becomes increasingly fluid, bored Ben and Mary enjoy hanging out with them and trying to embrace their more carefree attitude.
Sokolovic has some of the funniest riffs, leaping about the stage with borderline hysterical enthusiasm, then collapsing into tears. Pettie conveys an undercurrent of pent-up energy, until he lets loose with a comically manic eruption in a chest-thumping, male-bonding scene with Schwimmer.
Impressive set design by Louisa Thompson provides a smoothly rotating variety of front and back yards, where interactions finally escalate into a wild bacchanalia.
Then comes a very late appearance by the always-delightful John Cullum, winner of two Tony Awards. As Frank, a former longtime resident, Cullum gently pontificates on the neighborhood history. His nostalgic discussion of the loss of neighborliness and safety over the past decades contrasts ironically with the preceding absurdly cataclysmic scene.
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- David Schwimmer