Coming from the Steppenwolf Theatre of Chicago in a new production by Austin Pendleton, Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit is a brutal, initially hilarious, suburban domestic comedy that dwindles slowly, and less convincingly, into desperation and disaster.
The more extreme it becomes, the less effective, as a quartet of new neighbours in a "first-ring” suburb on the edge of a medium-sized city (not necessarily Detroit, says the author) come together and fall apart around their backyard barbecues in an atavistic dance of destruction.
Yes, folks, suburbia can’t accommodate failure and boozed-up misery; it just packs up and keels over, quite literally in the case of these flimsy balsa wood shacks where the grooves on the patio windows are as inefficient as the parasol clips and the DIY decking on the back stoop.
Kenny and Sharon – sensationally well played by the unclassifiable comedian, Will Adamsdale, and Clare Dunne, last seen at the National in Juno and the Paycock – are the new arrivals, fresh from rehab, but not secure, and dubious tenants anyway of the property next door.
Their hosts, Ben and Mary, exhibit a veneer of respectability at first, but they are equally subject to the pressures of confinement and the fragility of their own marriage.
Stuart McQuarrie’s bumbling, amiable Ben is a suppressed backwoodsman who has lost his job and is supposedly starting up a financial advice website while harbouring a fantasy alter ego as "Ian", a British geography teacher.
Mary, brilliantly done by an impulsive, edgy Justine Mitchell, is the opposite of a domestic goddess, a catastrophic drunk with a fast developing crush on Sharon. After throwing up in the plant pots, she inveigles Sharon onto a girl scout expedition; they return just as the men are planning a trip of their own to a downtown strip joint.
The final freak-out, with its sad echoes of free-love hippiedom, is awkwardly staged – as it should be – by choreographer Arthur Pita, and whole “episode” put in sober context by an 11 o’clock visit by the true embodiment of the suburban American lifestyle, Frank (Christian Rodska), who explains not quite everything.
So, D’Amour’s play is less a chanson d’amour than a bitter lament for a generation unable to adjust to the post-war 1950s grown-up game plan. As such, it’s a fascinating, well-written exercise in combining the comic detail of Alan Ayckbourn with the raw poetry of Sam Shepard. But it does remain something of an exercise.