Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit is yet another entry in the never-ending American tradition of theater about angry drunk families who have secrets that will be revealed after the intermission. You know these people already: Williams’ Kowalskis, O’Neill’s Tyrones, and Albee’s George, Martha, Nick and Honey. Last year, we suffered through Jon Robin Baitz’s unimaginative, stultifying Other Desert Cities, proof that this genre—now a caricature of itself—has long been ready to die.
Admittedly, Detroit is not the worst play to follow this outline, but it is hardly good enough to justify the retread: Kenny (Darren Pettie) and Sharon (Sarah Sokolovic), two addicts just out of recovery, move in next door to Ben (David Schwimmer) and Mary (Amy Ryan), an unhappily married couple who bury their emotional and economic problems in alcohol. Ben, formerly a banker, has been laid off and now spends his time working on a business that will give financial advice to people with low credit ratings. Kenny and Sharon, also starting from ground zero, pick up menial jobs and try to put their lives back together. Despite attempts from both sides to be neighborly, and despite efforts at “real communication,” the four usually spend their time together shielding themselves behind passive aggressive comments and outright lies.
The title suggests that the play is a symptomatic expression of the city in which it is set. Indeed, Detroit specifically and Michigan generally have suffered greatly in the last decades. The site of General Motors and Motown, the place that was nicknamed “The City of Champions” in the 1930s, now bears more resemblance to post-Katrina New Orleans than a booming center of entertainment and industry. But the relatively middle-class Ben and Mary, lily-white professionals with an immaculate garden, seem out of place here; this is not 8 Mile, but The ‘burbs. Apart from a few choice lines—I chuckled when Mary said, with typical Midwestern awe, “I drove all the way to Whole Foods to get them [heirloom tomatoes]”—Detroit could really be set in any other American city.
Additionally, Mr. Schwimmer, a television star with a nasal voice suited to neurotic Jewish characters and little else, is certainly not the face to put on depression. Transplanted to the stage, playing a guy wearing shorts and sandals and drinking beers while grilling, he smells faintly of fraudulence. It’s really not his fault, of course—like George M. Cohan writing serious drama, he is simply an entertainer misplaced. The role requires a genuine actor, not an effete Hollywood personality. His co-stars, particularly Ms. Ryan, handle the material well, but they cannot escape the lack of verisimilitude that pervades the stage.
Detroit, then, is ultimately brought down by its transparency—it is a play that is too clearly written starring a man who is too clearly acting.