In Lisa D’Amour’s Pulitzer-nominated play Detroit, two couples live next door to each other in an unspecified suburb. Mary (Geneviève Perrier) and Ben (Steven Rishard) meet Sharon (K.O. DelMarcelle) and Kenny (Matteo J. Scammell), who have just moved in. We learn the basics: Mary works as a paralegal, and Ben, who has just lost his job, spends his days on the Internet as he tries to start a company of his own. Kenny and Sharon are slightly younger and far less established in a middle-class status: Kenny works in a warehouse, Sharon in a call center. The couples have barbecues. They exchange pleasantries. They make small talk, smile, exercise manners. These surface-level interactions are all that the couples offer up to one another, and they are almost all the audience sees.
Detroit has been criticized for being too shallow — it could have gone into a deeper, less superficial exploration of Real Issues, like class and economic despair. After all, nothing much happens. However, the play’s genius is in its refusal to go there. It keeps us, like its characters, comfortable in what we see, wholly entertained, but not quite satisfied.
The actors perform for the audience as characters who perform for one another, often overacting and exaggerating their expressions and gestures far beyond believability. The audience can see right through it and so can the other characters. Mary’s grin is too wide to indicate real happiness. Sharon swears and calls attention to her halfhearted attempt to use a more proper word. The characters try out new roles, too, playing somewhat altered versions of themselves. Kenny bellows, “Let’s put these puppies on the grill!,” a line Ben delivered earlier on. Ben attempts a British accent. Through their acting, the couples socialize each other: Ben and Mary exhibit classic middle-class life to Sharon and Kenny, who demonstrate the virtues of living for the moment to Mary and Ben.
The characters edge toward the possibility of truer connection through candor, although another character almost always tugs back the approach. It’s enough to give you whiplash. When Sharon asks, “Who invites their neighbors over for dinner anymore?,” Ben answers her rhetorical question with, “We don’t have any friends.” Mary furrows her eyebrows at Ben, who shrugs. Mary shares details about her foot surgery, which embarrasses Ben, and he tries to shut her up. Sharon absentmindedly hums the melody to Aerosmith’s "Dream On" and Ben begins to sing along, until Mary quickly interrupts them both with a banal question.
No going back
As the characters slip between their public personas and states of honest vulnerability, their worries and secrets spill out with no hope of putting them back. Mary gets drunk and talks to Sharon in the middle of the night about her marriage frustrations. Kenny exchanges a glance with Ben as Sharon and Mary banter. At a barbecue, Sharon sheds tears about the beautiful possibility of neighborly connection. Kenny and Sharon admit to having had stints in rehab.
While Kenny and Sharon figure things can only get better because they’ve already hit rock bottom, Mary and Ben’s comfortable middle-class status is slipping and they are afraid — in this way, Detroit becomes Mary and Ben’s story. Both couples attempt to keep up a veneer of contentment in their lifestyles while simultaneously trying to escape — into the Internet, into the woods, into a high, away from the pressures and boredom of suburban life, where they all must grapple with the tension between their familiar domesticity, cozy as it may be, and their dissatisfaction with it. They live in a place where anything can happen, but nothing ever does. How, then, did they find themselves like this?
That’s not a question the characters will answer. Instead, they direct their effort toward keeping up appearances, holding one another at an arm’s length, reaching toward and clinging onto the materialist markers of their middle-class status. (Mary and Ben, in particular, construct their identities around their consumer habits, acquiring private property that further isolates them from others.) Perhaps an escape would be possible if they only focused on building substantial connections or aiming for a more worthy goal than comfortable middle-class suburban life, but that would require giving up material comforts and experiencing social discomfort in the process.
Late in the play, with the promises of suburban life having failed them and little left to lose, Ben and Mary are asked if they have family or friends they can rely on. They answer, “No, we have insurance.” Detroit aptly captures the anxiety stemming from this shallow, consumer-driven, disappointing life we might lead and from the very thought of giving it up.
For a review of Detroit by Dan Rottenberg, click here.