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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Lisa D'Amour's Detroit Is Where We Live and What We Are

Posted By on Tue, Jun 30, 2015 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge Sharon (c. Luisa Frasconi) serves appetizers to neighbors Mary (l, Amy Resnick*) and Ben (r, Jeff Garrett*) as Kenny (back, Patrick Kelly Jones*) mans the hibachi in Aurora’s Bay Area Premiere of Detroit. - DAVID ALLAN
  • David Allan
  • Sharon (c. Luisa Frasconi) serves appetizers to neighbors Mary (l, Amy Resnick*) and Ben (r, Jeff Garrett*) as Kenny (back, Patrick Kelly Jones*) mans the hibachi in Aurora’s Bay Area Premiere of Detroit.

The play is called Detroit, but the space of the action is as surreal as the Astroturf that furs the floor of the stage in a uniform green. In the Aurora Theatre Company’s production of Lisa D’Amour’s 2010 Pulitzer-finalist play, couples Ben and Mary and Kenny and Sharon knock around in their backyards, a zone that is simultaneously indoors and outdoors, domesticated and wild, in a district where identical houses line streets named Sunshine Way, Ultraviolet Lane, and Fluorescent Avenue — also Feather Boulevard, Weightless Avenue, Helium Street.

It's “light and light,” as one character points out.

Spanning the ordinary and the absurd, Detroit delivers the dark hysteria of the American dream gone wrong with the transient nonchalance of the American sitcom.

Detroit opens with Ben (Jeff Garrett) and Mary (Amy Resnick), longtime residents of this strange little suburb, inviting their near-rhyming new neighbors Kenny (Patrick Kelly Jones) and Sharon (Luisa Frasconi) to a barbecue in their yard. All pretense of middle-class protocol falls apart almost instantly — the sliding door sticks, the patio umbrella flops down and wallops Kenny on the head, the steaks and baked potatoes are made of an inedible plastic that their eaters don’t attempt to conceal.

Ben has been laid off from his job at the bank and is dangling on the last month of his severance pay. Kenny and Sharon, who met in drug rehab, have no furniture — and possibly no jobs, either. The neighborly gesture highlights all that is odd about the concept of the neighbor: In theory, they're the people who keep your spare key and offer an abundance of sugar when your pantry is empty, but in practice, they're disruptive strangers who live in alarming proximity.

Like all good strangers, the two couples rapidly escalate from pleasantries to uncomfortable intimacies, with Sharon chirping, “This is awesome. I mean, who invites their neighbors over for dinner anymore?” and Mary hauls her own coffee table out as a housewarming gift before sneering that her husband will have to buy her a new one.

click to enlarge Sharon and Mary (l-r, Luisa Frasconi, Amy Resnick*) bond in the backyard. - DAVID ALLAN
  • David Allan
  • Sharon and Mary (l-r, Luisa Frasconi, Amy Resnick*) bond in the backyard.

Though the anxiety governing much of the dialogue is work, mimicking the traditional trope of American television, the four are never shown to do any actual labor. They spend all their time cooking on their grills, an activity that highlights the thin line between bourgeois faux-naturel leisure and feral hunger. Again and again, the couples invoke escape as the preferred mode of living. Mary, who says she is a paralegal, fantasizes about a redemptive return to nature, camping in the woods “with one pot and one pan,” while guzzling vodka. Sharon and Kenny flirt with sobriety only to succumb to heroin again. Ben envisions a new career as an independent financial consultant that will return him to a state of stability as soon as he builds a website, but “if you follow your passions, you’re halfway there.”

If virtual reality is sweet, why ever leave the cocoon of the mind? Yet the brutal specter of reality intrudes with mundane physical violence, repulsive and annoying like the plantar's wart on Mary’s foot, or excruciating and potentially disabling like Ben’s splintering crash through the incomplete back porch that Kenny built. But Mary and Ben get casts on their wounds, and the four lurch along, saying much but doing little. “It’s so weird how nothing ever happens,” Sharon muses. To do or not to do — thought and action are about equivalent, so throw another hot dog on the grill.

“When you are at zero, anything can happen. It’s like total possibility,” says Sharon, during the final, lurid bacchanalian free-for-all that is just a bigger, messier version of the barbecue that opens the play. These little aphorisms pepper the dialogue like cheery advertisements, even as the set by Mikiko Uesugi is shown to be made of easily fractured parts and all illusions of home and monogamy and friendship rupture. Resnick and Garrett maintain a folksy realism teetering on the taut edge of propriety, while Jones and Frasconi wield their wildness with casual despair. Detroit inhabits an atmosphere of disaster that seems implausible, neat, and claustrophobic all at once, revealing the new American economic reality as a Sartrean hell.

Detroit, through July 19 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley, $32-$50; 510-843-4822 or

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Irene Hsiao


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