Director Dylan Rogerson’s version of Lisa D’Amour’s award-winning play Detroit entertained crowds in K-State’s Purple Masque Theater recently. The playwright is from New Orleans and the break-out production of the play was at Chicago’s Steppenwolf. It has also been done at the National Theater in London.
But the locale of the play itself is unspecified, a forty-year-old suburban development near some city, and the text is studded with references to numbered ring-roads and by-passes. Is this Detroit or Los Angeles, Baltimore or Kansas City?
Wherever it is, two young couples live next door to each other. The better-off pair, paralegal Sharon and would-be financial planer Ben, have been in their house for a while, even before Ben was let go from his banking job. They invite the newcomers, pink-haired Mary and tattooed Kenny, to join them for a backyard barbecue.
The newbies are broke. They are just starting out, they say, on a new life of sobriety after a spell in rehab. Mary (Dani Golway) has a way of dropping rehab lingo into her apparently artless bursts of enthusiasm over suburban life. She and Kenny (Benton Coon) met at the program. Except, wait, they met eight years before in Atlanta, when they were both already regularly visiting the smorgasbord of recreational drugs.
Kenny’s uncle has loaned them the house, or so they say. They won’t drink, except maybe one beer each. Mary has a job at a call center, except she takes off one day to get high and walk around the neighborhood, spending hours talking with a drug-taking electrician in his parked truck before she is seen and retrieved by Kenny, who we now learn has lost his job.
Not that the other couple are much less mysterious. Day after day Ben (James Sherwood) fails to make any progress in setting up the web-site that will be the only advertisement for his proposed business. Instead he is sitting around playing on a site that allows visitors to set up false identities as U.K. residents, and then to live fictitious “virtual” lives, Sim City like.
Sharon (Tori Ptacek) seems to be drinking too much. She recalls wild dreams and, when intoxicated, says she wants to get back to nature. To this end she and Mary plan a camping weekend. But just as their husbands are ready to mix up a dinner of Manwich sauce and broken-up hot-dogs before visiting an area nightclub, the girls return, having been unable to follow directions to the camping site and then having had a flat tire. There was no spare in the car.
As the four drink beer, they gleefully join in piling up lumber intended for use in deck-building and some outdoor furniture, and in dancing around, in celebration but without an apparent occasion.
In a last scene, the script brings in Kenny’s uncle (Manasseh McPike) to explain some of what has occurred during the play proper. His discourse on the history of the development helps to explain the title. And yet, no fault of McPike’s, this all seems artificial.
The neighborhood has gone downhill in the way many Detroit neighborhoods seem to have. Detroit the city has become an emblem of civic decay and failure. And to the extent that Mary and Kenny lead, help, or otherwise influence the slide in the fortunes of Sharon and Ben, the dramatic action makes a sort of sense as a description of some of what must have happened in Michigan.
But the reliance on narrator ex machina in the last scene is too much like Mary’s stilted phrases from rehab. In both cases the devices are too obvious—so obvious that they dampen audience expectations of comedy. What works in Detroit is not the symbolic, but the human. Mary and Kenny, Sharon and Ben become interesting characters, albeit sometimes weak and goofy, ones. The cast makes them amusing and likable. And so the audience feels their tragedy.
The production was helped a lot by the work of off-stage technicians, and especially by set designer Chase Rossman who not only managed to convey the differences and similiaries of the two houses (one is red brick and the other has green siding) but who, I assume, also stuck a red light inside the frequently-used barbecue grill. That bit of signification worked fine.