By Christine Dolen
Photo: Justin Namon
Miami Herald Reviewer
One could craft a compelling play about the disintegration of a once-great American city and call it Detroit, but that wasn’t Lisa D’Amour’s aim when she wrote her play, a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in drama.
D’Amour’s Detroit, now kicking off Zoetic Stage’s season in the Carnival Studio Theater at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, is part withering comedy, part character study. Its characters’ lives are refracted through the lens of the economic downturn, as the American Dream transforms from aspiration to myth. What the play depicts is, by turns, funny, stress-filled and cautionary — much like life itself these days.
Set in the adjacent backyards of two modest, close-to-the-city surburban homes, the play follows the evolving (and dangerous, as it turns out) relationship of a couple and their new young neighbors.
Mary (Irene Adjan) is a paralegal and, of necessity, the breadwinner since her hubby Ben (Chaz Mena) lost his bank job. She’s pleasant enough when she’s sober, but that’s usually not the case in the evenings when vodka adds some sting to her commentary. He’s notably eccentric and socially awkward, his glasses dangling from a cord around his neck, his laugh forced, and he doesn’t seem to be making much progress in getting his new financial planning website up and running.
The couple next door, who met not-so-cute in rehab, has nothing except each other and a tenuous sobriety. Sharon (Betsy Graver), who works in a call center, is a blond bombshell who wears a rubber band on her wrist so she can snap herself back into the moment whenever she feels self-destructive impulses creeping into her thoughts. Her husband Kenny (Matt Stabile), a guy who knows how to fix things (unlike Ben), toils at a warehouse job that isn’t the best career choice for a guy who has a pending lawsuit over a slip-and-fall back injury. Not that Kenny and Sharon have many options.
How events unfold is something Zoetic audiences deserve to discover in the moment. But under Stuart Meltzer’s artfully detailed direction, this volatile but fascinating quartet heads toward a conflagration, as bad decisions, bad influences and bad old habits prove disastrous. A fifth character, Kenny’s great uncle Frank (David Kwiat), appears briefly near the end of the show to provide a reality check. But by that point, a neighborly friendship has been torched.
As is usually the case in a Zoetic show, the acting is uniformly fine — and, in Graver’s case, masterful. Reading the script, you don’t get a sense the play belongs to Sharon, but Graver claims it. Though Sharon is the definition of hot mess, Graver shades the character with an enthusiastic simplicity so winning that the audience, like Stabile’s quietly empathetic Kenny, forgives Sharon her flaws.
Adjan and Mena put Mary and Ben in that testy place between comfortable familiarity and overt hostility. The actors let the audience see how, despite the couple’s attempts at social graces and keeping up appearances, the economic downturn may well prove fatal to their marriage.
Zoetic’s design team — Michael McKeever (set), Marcelo Ferreira (lighting), Matt Corey (sound) and Estella Vrancovich (costumes) — delivers first-rate work, and the play’s daunting technical challenges come off without a hitch.
D’Amour has said that, as she created Detroit and saw it get its 2010 world premiere at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, she wondered whether economic recovery might soon make the play seem dated. No worries. No matter how greatly the economy rebounds, the much-produced Detroit will remain a vibrant, insightful piece of theater.