Sunday, October 10, 2010

'Detroit' Well-Worth Visiting Even If It Feels a Bit Too Safe -- Theater Review: Detroit at Steppenwolf Theatre

Theater Review

a new play by Lisa D'Amour
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru November 7, 2010

Although full of somber undertones, Lisa D'Amour's world premiere play, "Detroit," is the most overtly enjoyable and thought-provoking new work I've seen at Steppenwolf in some time, probably since August: Osage County premiered there in 2007.

As such, it's well worth your time and presuming you can get a discounted ticket through myriad options--Steppenwolf's Twenty for $20 program each morning at 11am (which I took advantage of, even at 12:30), their half-priced rush tickets, HotTix and Goldstar--your money.

It may be the going rate, but $53-$73 for a normal ticket (depending on the day) is not only antithetical to Detroit's theme of recessionary consequences, but is likely to blame for why on Friday night--with $60 the standard price--Steppenwolf had more empty seats than I'd ever seen. And this for a well-reviewed show starring Laurie Metcalf, a longtime ensemble member who's enjoyed considerable TV fame.

Suffice it to say that Detroit seemed significantly better for $20 than it would've felt for full price, and some folks in the after-show discussion expressed chagrin over what they had paid for the show they saw. Who knows if it's feasible, but this would be an ideal play for which to hold free or cut-rate "Newcomer Nights," especially if expressly marketed to a more culturally-diverse audience than was in the house on Friday night.

Photo Credit on all: Michael Brosilow
As it was, I was quite entertained by D'Amour's well-paced and accessible script, and especially fine performances by a full cast of Steppenwolf ensemble players, including Metcalf, Ian Barford, Kate Arrington, Kevin Anderson and Robert Breuler.

In playing a perplexed middle-class suburbanite, Metcalf's characterization as Mary couldn't help remind of her most famous role as Jackie on 'Roseanne,' and she was superb. Barford was typically great as her unemployed husband, Ben, the always-engaging Anderson was fun as ex-drug addict Kenny, who moves in next door with his also previously strung-out wife, Sharon, played with beautiful believability by Arrington, who has never been better. Breuler has a smaller role, but likewise plays it well.

With a very watchable and quite pertinent storyline--revolving around the relationship between the neighboring couples--, wonderful performances and impressive characterizations, "Detroit" well-deserves the @@@@ I am awarding it. And yet, I can't help but think that it could've been considerably better.

Mind you, many of my issues likely have to do more with the play I expected/wanted it to be, rather than flaws in what was presented. Between my own ongoing state of unemployment, the lack of Clash, Public Enemy or Nirvana-like beacons to shake (or at least loudly comment upon) our societal malaise and Chris Jones' Tribune review calling "Detroit" a "major new play about the soul-destroying layoffs [and] the collapse in real estate values," I went in hoping for a Howard Beale moment stretched over 95 minutes.

And given the connotations of Detroit, a city I actually like but that has been blighted for years by economic and racial strife, and which has seen recent strides devastated by the problems of the U.S. auto industry (and overall economy), I guess I was anticipating something a bit more specific and direct.

Not only is the play set in a "first ring" suburb rather than within Detroit itself, but D'Amour (via the Steppenwolf program) states that it doesn't even necessarily take place in the Detroit vicinity, as the neighborhood portrayed could exist on the edges of many other U.S. cities.

As such, if the play were called "Morton Grove" (a near first-ring suburb of Chicago) or "There Goes The Neighborhood," and if Jones' hadn't prepared me for more outright anger--to be fair, his review does detail some of the same shortcomings in tone that I found--I might have been entirely satisfied with its engaging portrayal of middle-class disconnect and, per the stated theme of the new Steppenwolf season, its take on Our Public/Private Self.

But assuming that D'Amour intended "Detroit" to be more strident a commentary on our tough economic times, I thought the overall tone felt a bit too facile and not infused with enough vitriol, daring or true sense of danger and consequence. I don't want to reveal anything that happens, and therefore it's hard to get specific about perceived shortcomings, but I just had a sense that there wasn't quite enough bleakness, desperation or overt tension in the situation being shown.

But this is very much a recommendation, so perhaps if you see the play, get in touch and we can debate whether 'Detroit' truly connected on all cylinders, or perhaps could stand to be a bit more revved up.


Two small things (these aren't really spoilers, but probably more apt after you've seen the play):

1. I think a moratorium should be placed on the utilization of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin.'" I enjoy the song and endorse its message, but it's been overused to the point of being trite. Given the play's supposed setting, why not incorporate some Seger or Motown? (Yes, I know DSB mentions South Detroit)

2. This is probably due to having recently re-watched the movie "Fight Club," but 'Detroit' is almost more fun if you consider Kenny & Sharon (Kevin Anderson/Kate Arrington) as merely Tyler Durden-esque characters in their relationship to Ben & Mary (Ian Barford/Laurie Metcalf).

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