Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit Lacks Horsepower


I felt some compassion for the characters of Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit (Playwrights Horizons), but while I was watching them make their lives worse, I felt more compassion for the little play itself. It strove, so honestly and so anxiously, to speak truth. It so much wanted to communicate an important meaning about the condition of middle-American life today, all confusion and disconnection and doubt. I could love this play, I almost felt, for its struggle to convey big meanings through its painstakingly accurate littleness.

And yet, by the end, my almost-love for Detroit had gone up in smoke, along with some of its characters’ prized possessions. The little play, as I had realized with mounting regret while its scenes rolled on, was merely little, a thin anecdote stretched beyond its natural length by its big ambitions. An unthinking suburban couple’s life, already in crisis, is pitched into the abyss by the arrival next door of a couple whose different way of life carries the seeds of inherent destruction. Another crazy-neighbors story. No politics; no social awareness (beyond a sitcom-level contrast of class behavior); no great depth or resonance to the characters. Not even, despite the title, any links to the automotive industry and its bailout-laden economic complexities. Just a one-liner that might have made a passable half-hour episode of ’50s TV; on The Twilight Zone, the new neighbors would at least have turned out to be space aliens.

In a sense, both couples nearly are that. D’Amour has tried to convey suburban anomie (and presumably keep down her cast size) by wiping away all social connections. With the new arrivals (Darren Pettie and Sarah Sokolovic), this is understandable, given their troubled history. But it’s curious that the elder couple, a laid-off bank loan officer (David Schwimmer) and his paralegal wife (Amy Ryan), apparently has no extended family, school friends, work colleagues, or even Facebook friends with whom they socialize, making them far too easy prey for the troublemakers. Instead of the generation-wide tectonic social shift D’Amour wants to dramatize, the effect is of stereotype suckers riding for a fall. Anne Kauffman directs effectively, if a little portentously. The actors, especially the infallibly pitch-perfect Ryan, do their best. But tiny anecdote is what Detroit remains. And eerily, it shares with Jordan Harrison’s Maple and Vine—which Kauffman directed for Playwrights Horizons last year—the creepy-dumb notion that ’50s suburbia, with its closed-minded materialism, was better.

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