Good things come to those who wait. Slow cooking yields the best flavor.
You might want to keep these aphorisms in mind as you watch Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit, an eerie, fascinating, episodic new play that slowly creeps up on you, and has an aggregate impact that’s like a punch in the gut.
Let me be clear – there’s nothing wrong with the beginning of the play. Mary and Ben, a married couple living in suburbia (despite the title, nothing about the story is specific to Detroit), are having a barbecue. Their guests are Sharon and Kenny, a young couple who recently moved in to the house next door. The invitation was a gesture of kindness – though Ben has lost his job as a loan officer, Sharon and Kenny are even less financially stable. There’s something a bit daring in the invitation, too. Sharon and Kenny are pretty freewheeling – for Mary and Ben, perhaps the upside of their current uncertainty is that it’s pushed them out of their comfort zone.
It doesn’t take long for this set up, which seems to promise a pleasant little comedy, to take us by surprise. D’Amour writes in scene fragments that begin and end in disconcertingly. There are sudden non-sequiturs of language and behaviour. Abrupt tonal shifts abound – from funny, to poignant, to uncomfortable, and back again. By the time two characters begin a stylized pantomime-dance (it’s one of the show’s most powerful moments), we’re destabilized – yet we know enough to expect the unexpected.
Detroit is a small play with big ambitions – a critique of a failing economy, ruminations on personal and civic decline, the vulnerable but necessary nature of human interaction. I don’t think it all works, but I applaud D’Amour’s scope and wonderfully personal voice. The play is dotted with character’s discussing their dreams (the nighttime kind, not big picture goals), and Detroit itself has a dreamlike quality – sometimes defying conventional logic, but revealing something profound and true.
At PTC, director Maria Mileaf provides a well-staged, visually striking production that mostly realizes the play’s scope. Some moments could register more deeply, but by and large the ensemble cast – K. O. DelMarcelle (Sharon), Tom McCarthy (Frank), Geneviève Perrier (Mary), Steven Rishard (Ben), Matteo J. Scammell (Kenny) – do well. DelMarcelle, in particular, is heartbreakingly real, and Rishard has an intriguing, offbeat presence I look forward to seeing again.
Opening their season with Detroit is a brave move for the Philadelphia Theatre Company, whose own financial difficulty has been an ongoing story in the press. My fervent hope for them is the same as my hope for Mary and Ben and co. – that they rise from their troubles and emerge even stronger. This kind of work must be supported and seen. Philadelphia owes them that.
Through November 9, Philadelphia Theatre Co. at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St., (215) 985-0420. philadelphiatheatrecompany.org