If I hadn’t seen Detroit in London, at the National, as directed by Austin Pendleton, I would have dismissed Lisa D’Amour’s play, as currently at Playwrights Horizons, under the direction of Anne Kaufman. And it’s not that Ms. Kaufman distorts the play or presents it inaccurately. Nor, I hasten to add, is it that Detroit is a great play. But—
—well, a brief summary first; taking place in a suburban neighborhood, it tells the story of two married couples who are new neighbors; strait-laced and sort-of conventional Mary & Ben (Amy Ryan and David Schwimmer) and former addicts and somewhat more Out There Sharon & Kenny (Sarah Sokolovic and Darren Pettie). As the play progresses, the influence of the iconoclasts upon the conformists becomes more pervasive and more volatile.
This gives a director an opportunity to be dangerous. And certainly the play has the tells of danger; a shade umbrella that suddenly closes on someone’s head; a sliding glass door that needs to be jiggled to slide fully over its track; a corroded board in a porch structure that can collapse under and gouge a foot. And in London, all these things were dangerous, and so brilliantly executed that the audience not only gasped at the shock (they do that a little in NY too), but recoiled at the damage; the head seeming really hurt; the bleeding foot seeming really injured). And the casting was dangerous too. From the outset the two sets of couples were oil and water, who could at best only try to find healthy common ground.
I sensed that Detroit at Playwrights was in what I deemed trouble right from the start; for one thing, the couples seemed potentially compatible. I understood Ms. Kaufman’s rationale—why not dramatize an encroaching danger; why not avoid giving away the game in the first reel, as it were? But then there was this: I didn’t believe it when the umbrella collapsed. I didn’t believe in the injury, I saw how the stunt was triggered (admittedly I knew it was coming) and though the dialogue was telling me there might be a storm a-brewin’, I just wasn’t along for the ride. Not, anyway, in a visceral sense. I never saw, nor felt, a raw nerve.
I hasten to add, this play is not some renegade, cinema verité pretender about fringe society; in many ways, it’s a dark domestic comedy with a mild tincture of absurdity. But it is, also, a play about getting closer and closer to the raw nerve, and if the little dangers at the start are palpable, that’s what sets up the permission to pull out all the stops later. That’s what creates the kind of dramatic tension between play and audience that keeps you leaning forward.
I hasten to add: Ms. Kaufman’s rendering, is, no mistake, cleanly delivered and smoothly professional; it’s to no one’s discredit. The problem is…it never could have been. Pendleton’s production courted artistic disaster from first minute to last, because at every turn it got nearer an apocalypse. It could have failed spectacularly. That it avoided flying out of control was a mark of how undetectably controlled it was. But Ms. Kaufman’s production never causes you to worry. In her able hands, with her able cast, the play is coherent, respectably engaging, amusing…and edgeless…and safe…
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