REVIEW: ‘Detroit’ not the Detroit I know

Reviewed by Robert Delaney, Detroit New Monitor

Click HERE to read the review on the Encore Michigan’s website.

Left to right: Mary (Venessa Sawson), Ben (Joe Plambeck), Kenny (David Sterritt), and Sharon (Danielle Cochrane).Photo: Felix Li

Left to right: Mary (Venessa Sawson), Ben (Joe Plambeck), Kenny (David Sterritt), and Sharon (Danielle Cochrane).
Photo: Felix Li

A middle class husband and wife find their life changing in unexpected ways after they reach out to the new couple that moves in next door in Lisa D’Amour’s “Detroit,” which joined this season’s production at Wayne State’s Hilberry Theatre last month.

But don’t let the title mislead you into thinking this play has, well, anything to do with Detroit. While D’Amour did title it “Detroit,” it was apparently almost as an afterthought. Her indication of the setting was originally in a “first ring suburb” outside any mid-sized American city, according to the Hilberry’s press release. The Hilberry has changed this to: “The first ring of residential homes on the outskirts of downtown Detroit.”

D’Amour herself has said about her choice of calling it “Detroit”: “Something about the way the name of tha city vibrates in the American imagination – that name evokes the kind of iconic anxiety around the crumbling American dream.”

First, I always thought we were a “big” city, not a “mid-sized” one. But be that as it may, I think a play entitled “Detroit” should actually have something to say about Detroit.

Back when I was a kid, I remember that Detroit was all but ignored on national television programs, and in the few cases when something was supposed to be taking place in Detroit, it was usually just shot on the studio’s back lot on a set that didn’t look anything like Detroit.

That was a half-century ago, but I remember thinking it was pretty crummy to treat the fifth-largest city in the country that way. We may no longer have that ranking, but Detroit is a real place that has its own character – and Detroit’s story deserves to be told.

One would think scenic designer Pegi Marshall Amundsen, at least, would have tried to make the set look Detroit-ish. I suppose she may have thought she was doing that by including the old Michigan Central Depot in the distant background, but what about making the two houses look something like the houses typical of some neighborhood – in the first ring of residential homes on the outskirts of downtown Detroit”?

As to the plot, which sounds awfully reminiscent of Thomas Berger’s 1980 novel, “Neighbors,” which was made into a 1981 movie with John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd, I again fail to see much connection with Detroit.

None of this criticism, however, is meant to detract from the performance of the play. Director Lavinia Hart works with a fine group of grad-student actors in presenting the story.

Joe Plambeck and Venessa Sawson are Ben and Mary, the middle class couple. David Sterritt and Danielle Cochrane are Kenny and Sharon, the ever-stranger couple that moves in next door.

As the reckless wildness of Kenny and Sharon is released, Ben and Mary gradually succumb to the temptation to give in to their wilder urges. This doesn’t end well, and Edmund Alyn Jones comes in late in the play, as Frank, to deal with some of the consequences.

Amazingly, “Detroit” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, but then, I’m guessing the Pulitzer folks don’t know much about my city either.

SHOW DETAILS:“Detroit” continues in rotating repertory through April 5 at the Hilberry Theatre, at Cass and West Hancock on the WSU campus. For performance and ticket information, call 313-577-2972 or go to www.wsushows.com.

Reprinted with permission of the New Monitor, Feb. 7, 2013

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