REVIEW: New play ‘Detroit’ misses the essence of Motown

Ben and Mary BLOG

Reviewd by: John Monaghan, Detroit Free Press January 17, 2013

Click HERE to read the review on the Free Press Website!

Though it’s titled “Detroit,” the new play at the Hilberry Theatre isn’t really about the Motor City.

Granted, a 2-liter bottle of Vernors appears in one scene, music by Eminem fills the space between acts, and interstates 94 and 696 get occasional shout-outs, but even playwright, Lisa D’Amour acknowledges that her dark comedy about two young couples who live next door to each other could easily have been set in a dozen other cities. (D’Amour had never even visited the Motor City before last year.)

That said, “Detroit” is an insightful, if sometimes long-winded, treatise on the way ordinary people deal with economic uncertainty and how they behave as neighbors in the 21st Century.

This is only the fourth production of “Detroit” in the play’s short history. It premiered in 2010 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and also played Off-Broadway last year at Playwrights Horizons in New York. Winning the opportunity to stage the Pulitzer Prize finalist was a coup for the Hilberry, Wayne State University’s graduate theater company, which is marking its 50th anniversary this season.

Though previous productions of the play were set in what D’Amour calls “a first-ring suburb,” the Hilberry staging moves the action into the city. Detroit’s skyline towers over a pair of brick bungalows, their backyards separated by a weathered chain link fence.

The play opens with a barbecue hosted by Ben (Joe Plambeck) and Mary (Vanessa Sawson), a stable married couple facing economic challenges. Ben has lost his job at the bank, and they’ve been scraping by on Mary’s salary as a paralegal. They’ve invited over new neighbors, Kenny (David Sterritt) and Sharon (Danielle Cochrane), who just moved into a house belonging to Kenny’s uncle. Both are recovering drug addicts who are trying to hold on to their jobs and build something like the life Ben and Mary appear to have.

After that, not a lot happens in terms of plot. The four characters — and the audience — are mostly left to ponder questions: Will Ben get his financial planning website off the ground? Will Kenny and Sharon stay on the wagon? Will Sharon and Mary actually take that just-girls camping trip they keep talking about? Part of the message here involves responsibility and the way the two couples approach adulthood. The notion of children is introduced subtly, partly via Samuel G. Byers’ sound design that uses the voices of kids at play in the background.

The Hilberry team earns an A for effort in all departments. Pegi Marshall-Amundsen’s set fashions familiar backyards and conjures a nifty bit of stage magic near the end that I wouldn’t dare spoil for you. Heather DeFauw’s lighting design beautifully evokes several times of day, as the show is set in both daylight and dark. (The two couples engage in a wild impromptu dance party once evening falls.) Veteran director Lavinia Hart does her best to make the show resonate with Detroiters, but doesn’t overplay local connections.

As Ben, Plambeck plays appropriately nice, though he grows confused when Sharon teases him about intonations in his voice that she swears must be British. This becomes a running gag in a show that is never exactly laugh-out-loud funny, though it earns some nods of audience recognition and amusement.

The reliable Sawson convincingly capture’s Mary’s marital and financial desperation, something that leads her to retreat into too many glasses of wine way too early in the afternoon. Her best scenes are opposite Cochrane’s free-spirited Sharon, the best and most animated member of the ensemble.

Less impressive is Sterritt’s Kenny, who never convinces us that he’s wrestling with the same demons as Sharon.

“Detroit,” which runs nearly two hours without intermission, builds to a satisfying and surprising climax, but then it overstays its welcome during a concluding diatribe from an old man (Edmund Allyn Jones) who goes on and on about the good old days in the couples’ neighborhood.

The speech captures everything I like and dislike about “Detroit.” It sort of gets at the essence of our fair city, but it leaves you hungry for something a little more Detroit-specific — a reference to working at an auto plant, maybe, or to shopping at the old downtown Hudson’s.


More Details: ‘Detroit’

* * *

out of four stars

Runs in rotating repertory through April 5

Hilberry Theatre

Wayne State University

4743 Cass Ave., Detroit



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