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By ERIC GRODE
The phrase "There goes the neighborhood" could be said by (and applied to) all four of the main characters in Detroit, Lisa D'Amour's scabrously funny new play. Whether it's Ben and Mary, the once-comfortable couple watching their safety net unravel beneath them, or Kenny and Sharon, the semi-squatting pair of recovering addicts who have relocated next door, everyone's digging down to rock bottom.
But the phrase rarely rang truer than it did when Hurricane Katrina obliterated large swaths of New Orleans in 2005. That calamity guided D'Amour (pictured above), a former Mardi Gras carnival queen, as she worked on her script. "My family had to totally rebuild from Katrina," she says. "The economy was a subconscious driving force---my husband, who's a composer, was out of work at the time, like so many people---but watching New Orleans recover from Katrina had a huge impact on me as I wrote the play."
Detroit, which is in previews at Playwrights Horizons, premiered to much acclaim in Chicago in 2010, earning a Pulitzer Prize nomination, and it later transferred to London's National Theatre. The show has been a change of focus for D'Amour, 42, who gained a reputation as one half of the Obie Award-winning interdisciplinary performance company PearlDamour (Katie Pearl is the other half). She calls Detroit the first "play play" she's written since 2006: "I had been doing a bunch of super-collaborative projects, and I decided to slip away and do my own thing for a summer."
The play has resonated with her for several other reasons. The general idea---the uneasy alliances that form and reform among four people---came from a thought experiment in which she imagined two of her extremely different uncles cohabitating. Plus, she wrote the play in the summer of 2009, which is now believed to be the official end of the U.S. recession, and that sense of unease informed her work, as did her knowledge of the challenges that recovering addicts face. ("Sadly, I've had exposure to that over the years. Not me myself but friends and family---and some have won and some have lost.")
As Detroit unfolds, Ben and Mary find themselves feeling envy, contempt, lust, and genuine compassion for their less fortunate neighbors, even as the socioeconomic dividing line between the two couples grows fuzzier. The ambient economic anxiety manifests itself in ways that are both metaphysical and extremely concrete. Several props, for instance, need to break down on cue, including a patio umbrella and a rickety patio deck that gives way at a particularly inopportune time.
It's so difficult to create dependably unpredictable props that the National Theatre used the tried-and-true pieces from the Steppenwolf production, although set designer Louisa Thompson has created a new batch for Playwrights Horizons. "The actors all have a backup plan," D'Amour says, "in case anything that's supposed to go wrong actually goes right."
Eric Grode is a freelance arts writer and a professor at Syracuse University's Goldring Arts Journalism Program
Photo by Zack Smith