Housing Crisis: Detroit Meditates on Suburban Dysfunction

The good old days are long gone

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Sokolovic, Pettie, Schwimmer and Ryan in Detroit. (Courtesy Jeremy Daniel)

In today’s suburbia—depressed, unemployed, foreclosed, lonely—it’s a short trip to hell.

Or so it is strongly suggested in Detroit, a tense, terrific, funny new play by Lisa D’Amour that kicks off the new season at Playwrights Horizons.

It is set in a first-ring suburb outside a midsized American city—one that is not necessarily the Motor City, according the script. It’s Yonkers, or Passaic, or the Archie Bunker reaches of Queens, places that swelled with the postwar exodus from cities but subsequently stagnated. It’s a neighborhood of small, dated homes. The people living in them, in today’s post-industrial, post-union society, are struggling, mostly anonymously, to get by. They may not think of themselves this way, but they are the 47 percent.

We first meet Ben (David Schwimmer, as adequately Ross-ish as ever) and Mary (Amy Ryan, fierce and fantastic), setting up for a barbecue on their backyard patio. Ben has lost his job as a bank officer; Mary is a paralegal. They’re hanging on, but just barely; Ben is living off his severance and working on a nonspecific and oft-delayed plan for an independent financial-counseling business. They’re welcoming their new neighbors, Kenny (Darren Pettie) and Sharon (Sarah Sokolovic), who several weeks earlier moved into a vacant house next door that, oddly, still betrays no signs of habitation. Kenny works in a warehouse, Sarah at a call center. We soon learn they’re addicts in recovery, and flat broke, but that’s the least of it. Kenny and Sarah, in that clichéd phrase—but not at all in a clichéd way—will proceed to upend Ben’s and Mary’s lives.

Ms. D’Amour, who was a Pulitzer finalist in 2011 for the initial staging of Detroit, at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, has created a collection of spiky characters who are superficially normal but on closer inspection reveal themselves to be weird, nervous, complicated, and flailing. They’re more than quirky; they’re to varying degrees crazy, and they’re all obsessed with their dreams—both literally, as they repeatedly recount them to one another, and figuratively, as they fantasize about different lives.

The play progresses across barbecues and beers, scenes moving between the two neighbors’ front and back yards. The dialogue is largely naturalistic—conversations about houses and credit scores, and Nascar on TV—but with occasional, disquieting flights into the bizarre. Detroit depicts a heightened reality, a subtly nerve-wracking one, in which all sorts of horrible things surface briefly, only to be forgotten by the morning: the risk of relapse, the hint of violence, contempt for a spouse, the fear of everything slipping away. Under the sure hand of the ace off-Broadway director Anne Kaufman, the amorphous tension slowly builds, but no clear signals are given as to where it’s going.

There is no racial element to Detroit, nothing about the white flight that helped leave these first-ring suburbs down-market. And in that respect, it’s not at all like Clybourne Park, the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning exploration of race and gentrification in a similar suburb that debuted at Playwrights before its Broadway run last season. But, even so, in both its setting and its sensibility, Detroit is unavoidably reminiscent of the earlier play: both look at how those idyllic 1950s communities have fared, and splintered, through the intervening decades. And it’s no insult to Ms. D’Amour’s play to acknowledge that Detroit, which is very good, cannot quite measure up to Clybourne, which was great.

But Detroit, with its currents of surrealism, can go places its more naturalistic predecessor did not. It gives in to some of its characters’ wacky fantasies, and it reaches a shocking, and unexpected, climax.

It also paints an even more damning portrait of modern suburbia: it’s not a place filled with Clybourne’s smug and self-congratulatory NPR listeners but instead is a sort of prison, a locus of failure, isolation, and decrepitude. The Playbill, and the script, contains an epigraph, a quote from former New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp: “Plywood has a lifespan of 40 years. Over time, the glue that holds plywood together dries up. Then, walls buckle, split and peel. Panels pop loose. Rooms, doors and windows morph into trick-or-treat versions of themselves.” Mr. Muschamp wrote it as the opening to an essay about the “obsolescence” of the “postwar suburban dream,” on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Levittown.

The estimable John Cullum, as Kenny’s uncle, Frank, gets Detroit’s coda. Frank has lived in the neighborhood, full of optimistic postwar street names like Sunshine Way, Rainbow Road, and Solar Power Lane, since it was built. “They were magic times,” he reminisces. “Kids running ragged everywhere, skinning their knees, catching beetles. All the fathers pulling into the driveways at 5:30 sharp.”

He goes on, nostalgically, for a bit longer. “Such a perfect memory,” he says, finally. “Sometimes I wonder if it was real at all.” Maybe it was then; now, it’s certainly not.

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