Even though neither couple’s suburban “starter home” is new, both houses feel somehow unfinished. You can see the seams in the sheetrock. Some newer construction is of bare lumber, not cut square. Even fully built parts of these houses feel low-fi, ersatz, or made of failing materials. The sliding door sticks. The lawn is a postage-stamp of turf. In the backyards of these two adjacent houses, two couples face vertiginous insecurity in the trajectory of middle-class American arrival, in Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit. Christopher Price directs (and has a swell little cameo in) a superbly cast production, both volatile and empathetic, at the Theater Project.
Mary (Shannon Campbell) and Ben (Brent Askari) may have “arrived,” but since Ben lost his job, they have been desperately trying to hold position. As he and Mary host a barbecue for their new, younger, under-employed neighbors, Sharon (Lindsey Higgins) and Kenny (Corey Gagne), we can see how much Mary, especially, wants to be their ambassador to the middle class: She gives them the coffee table, serves iced tea in plastic goblets, and shares the gospel of pink sea salt. Her guests, Sharon and Kenny, met in rehab, as Sharon announces with a slightly red-flag lack of preamble, and they are now trying for a fresh start in Kenny’s uncle’s house. Every one of these characters has dark-comedic foibles, aspirations, and a front that will crack.
Higgins’s beautifully protean Sharon, in cut-offs and cut-up t-shirts, is vivid, candid, and unpredictable. You can sense a current of charismatic impulse gleaming beneath her surface, and she is not unaware of her jarring allure. Campbell’s Mary starts off the play as a foil of stability to Sharon, with her slacks, her solid, practical movements, and her bright hostess-talk as she sets out plastic plates and cups. But soon enough, it’s clear she struggles with alcoholism, a reveal that Campbell makes admirably gradual; her Mary rings true in the mingling of offense and defense that she wields in the process of getting a drink.
The men often defer to or try to defuse their more dramatic partners. Askari works Ben’s comedy in an affable schlemiel kind of way, giving him an endearing, aw-shucks pathos, an even-tempered decency. Meanwhile, Gagne’s finely restrained, deep-voiced Kenny is so stoic, capable, and protective for so much of the play that his eventual reach for a beer signals a new level of bad news. When it happens, he and Ben reveal how desperately they’re grasping at any stereotype of strong white masculinity, as they plan a trip to the strip club that’s “one step up from trashy.”
As the characters navigate hope and failure, some surprisingly lyrical language sometimes comes out of their mouths: When the women dream of Spartan self-sufficiency in the woods, Mary says she wants “silver guppies nodding their heads on my calf.” After a fail in the woods, Sharon describes the car as sounding “like it was eating celery mixed with ice.” L’Amour’s script also lets Sharon play knowingly with “middle-class” language and tone: One minute she and Kenny are crowing through the possible names of a bar they got high in years ago, their faces screwed into debauched grins, and the next minute, she’s arch and mellifluous: “I’d love some lemon-ginger iced tea!” Such lines, and the nuance of these actors’ delivery, illuminate the insight, imagination, and savviness in these human beings, even as it strains against the Tupperware tenuousness of their existence.
The optimism that built their suburbs, in the 1950s, now seems almost surreal — a street around the corner is actually named “Solar Power Lane.” And Price’s cameo, as an older man nostalgic for when the early days of the neighborhood, is a quietly poignant counterpoint to everyone else’s histrionics and insecurity. “It was like stealing second base,” he says softly, wistfully, of that time. “You were safe.” Several decades later in the game, it’s clear that not everyone is making it home.
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