Detroit: comedy of despair

Mitch and Murray Productions is presenting Detroit.

Luisa Jojic consoles a drunken Jennifer Copping in Detroit.

In Detroit, Lisa D’Amour has created a kind of comedy of despair. It’s fueled by fierce, often futile, resistance.

Ben, who has lost his job in banking, spends his days trying to build a website to sell his services to people who are scrabbling to get out of debt. When the play starts, Ben and his wife Mary, who seems to be an alcoholic in training, are entertaining their new neighbours, a younger couple named Sharon and Kenny, on their back deck. Sharon and Kenny met in rehab.

Detroit is a comic reckoning of the ways that American culture is falling apart economically, socially, and interpersonally. Tellingly, D’Amour sets the action in a formerly middle-class suburb. We’re not necessarily outside Detroit, but that city has become an icon of the collapse of capitalism.

The play doesn’t analyze the reasons behind America’s collapse. Instead, Detroit spins hilariously wicked comedy out of the characters’ desperate efforts to rise above their circumstances. Ben falls prey to the prophets of economic self-help. “He’s got this great book and it talks a lot about breathing deep”, Mary says. Sharon speaks with solemn rapture about “the next internet”, which she believes will make everything okay although, when pressed, she admits, “I can’t explain it and it’s outside of our understanding at this time.” Kenny has a less benign view of the probability of technological salvation: “HTML can kiss my sweet, ripe ass.”

Most touchingly, Mary and Sharon decide to go on a camping trip. Sharon whimpers, “I think nature is really going to help.” While they’re gone, Kenny decides that the time is right for the men to party while their partners are “out there in nature, sitting in the menstrual hut, eating crickets.”

Stylistically, this production has many strengths, but it could be more precise. Joel Wirkkunen’s Ben is rock solid. The character’s frustration and grief are just undeniably there, like a wrecked car sitting in a vacant lot. And there’s a scene in which Sharon makes a middle-of-the-night confession to Mary that’s played so simply and with such quiet tenderness by Luisa Jojic (Sharon) and Jennifer Copping (Mary) that the stakes of the story ratchet up and so does the emotional credibility of the evening. Aaron Craven plays Kenny and his finest work comes when Kenny is wordlessly fretting over burgers on his grill.

Opening night started off wonkily, though, with Jojic overplaying Sharon’s foolishness, pointing enthusiastically at absurdity that the audience should be allowed to discover. And I suspect that slight overplaying generally undermines this production. The losers in the play, which is to say all four main characters, just keep losing, and their extreme behaviour just keeps getting more extreme. The potential repetitiveness is a structural pitfall. The play’s movement is about they ways in which Sharon and Kenny drag Ben and Mary into their hedonistic undertow and, if the machinations of that seduction are too obvious, as they are here, the play loses some of its potentially redeeming subtlety.

I don’t want to overstate my case. There’s a great deal of satisfaction to be had in director Lois Anderson’s production, and I’m grateful to Mitch and Murray Productions, which consistently mounts intelligent, adventuresome work.

And there’s another way of looking at the stylistic challenge that Detroit presents: for a long time in the script and in this production, it’s hard to like anybody enough to really care about what’s happening to them; their hard times don’t carry much emotional weight. But there’s a lovely scene near the end of Detroit that put the whole thing in perspective for me and gave me a satisfying sense of completion. The owner of the house that Sharon and Kenny have been renting appears and addresses all that has been lost. As he recalls the optimistic early days of this suburb, in which all of the street names are about light—sunshine, rainbows, fluorescence—the importance of what is happening hits home. As a culture, we’re losing neighbourliness and all that implies: decency, shared morality, predictability, and safety. That’s a lot. Not that D’Amour lets us get nostalgic. “Such a perfect memory,” the owner concludes. “Sometimes I wonder if it was real at all.”

DETROIT By Lisa D’Amour. Directed by Lois Anderson. Presented by Mitch and Murray Productions at Studio 16 on Friday, November 5. Continues until November 19.

Recommended. Get tickets at 1-800-838- 3006 or http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2668825

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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