Every now and then, a good film or play can gain an added resonance when it coincides with current events. Lisa D’Amour’s portrayal of two destructive marriages, Detroit, is enjoying a sold-out off-Broadway run at a time when its eponymous city is in the public eye. The Tigers made it to the World Series; one of its native sons ran for president; and a documentary about its challenges is playing in movie theaters (see pg. 26). At the same time, Edward Albee’s classic portrait of toxic married couples, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” has returned to Broadway in another revival.
Unfortunately, the play is not really about the city of Detroit; it could just as easily be called “Tulsa,” “Kansas City” or “Jacksonville,” and the setting could be the suburbs of any of these cities. Nor does it achieve the catharsis that Albee’s absurdist domestic drama continues to deliver even 50 years after it first shocked Broadway audiences and filmgoers. “Detroit” does, however, dwell on the effects of the joblessness that both presidential candidates promise to address if elected. And the closing scene of the play—involving actual fire on stage—deals with the demons in many a family these days. As such, “Detroit” is an important and relevant addition to American theater today.
The play opens with the same situation as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”: a married couple invites another couple over to their house. But instead of the genteel-shabby residence of a college professor that serves as the setting for Albee’s play, “Detroit” begins in the backyard of a home in what is now called the “first ring” of suburbia, a subdivision built in the 1960s that is in serious decline. The host couple, Mary (Amy Ryan) and Ben (David Schwimmer) have invited their new next-door neighbors, Kenny (Darren Pettie) and Sharon (Sarah Sokolovic), over for a barbecue (introducing the fire motif). Their awkward conversation is suddenly exploded by Sharon’s lengthy and manic observations about the disappearance of the concept of neighbor in society today. Meanwhile, Mary and Ben’s typically suburban glass sliding door tends to get jammed and the umbrella of their patio dining table keeps unfolding, finally inflicting a wound on Kenny’s head (domestic dysfunction looms). We soon find out that Ben has been laid off from his job as a loan officer at a bank. The housing loan-default crisis has apparently affected the lenders as well as the borrowers. Mary works as a paralegal, while the other couple claim to have low-level jobs, which we soon come to suspect are fictional. It is then revealed that Mary has a drinking problem and Kenny and Sharon are drug addicts in recovery (maybe).
As the couples’ relationship continues, Ben and Mary begin to take on Kenny and Sharon’s philosophy of life. As Sharon says to Mary, “You’ve got to live this moment; that’s all you can do.” This traditional carpe-diem attitude acquires new meaning in the current atmosphere of disillusionment with the American dream and the bleak economic prospects of so many families today. This view proceeds to darken both couples’ lives, turning into a dangerous hedonism and culminating in a Bacchanalian return to the backyard where the play’s action began. This time the party is fueled by excessive alcohol consumption, includes some inappropriate sexual activity and concludes with some major property destruction.
Each character is given at least one powerful monologue. Sharon gets several, including those early observations about neighbors, her extremely detailed accounts of her nightmares and her angry tantrum in reaction to another neighbor’s complaint about her dog. Sharon concludes her rant by shouting, “I don’t even have a dog!” Mary offers a lengthy description of her unhappiness in a marriage to her unemployed husband who spends every day working on creating his own Web site. A drunken Ben finally erupts in a confession that there is no Web site and never will be, while Kenny reveals a hostile macho decadence in his description of a “boys’ night out” that he invites Ben to enjoy with him.
The performances by the superb film actress Amy Ryan and the former television star David Schwimmer flesh out the play’s depiction of marital frustration, and the newcomer Sarah Sokolovic displays an impressive range as a comic hysteric, sexy swinger and desperate druggie. The admirably detailed set gradually turns the realistic scenery of a typical suburban dream-house into a horrifying disaster scene.
The most original image in the play is provided by Kenny when he and Sharon host the barbecue at their house. While the burgers are really cooking onstage, Kenny describes his own version of the traditional meal. He confides that he makes the hamburgers with a ball of cheddar cheese inside. He warns the guests to be careful when they bite into them. “You might burn your mouth.” The suburban lifestyle can have unintended and painful consequences.
“Detroit” would benefit from more of this originality in its language and symbolism. Perhaps it isn’t fair to compare this solid drama with the theatrical couples whose company it would like to join. The play’s emotional violence never approaches the monstrous fun and games of “Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf,” the poetry of “A Long Day’s Journey into Night,” the wicked humor of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” or the primal sadness of “Death of a Salesman.”
“Detroit” succeeds, however, in its personalization of the discouraging situation of many American families at this time. One can only hope that it will someday be seen as a document about life in the early 21st century that, like the dramas of Clifford Odets in the Great Depression, serves mainly as a depiction of a painful American memory.