REVIEWS BYTheatre ReviewsTom Williams


By Lisa D’Amour

detroit by lisa d' Amour

Directed by Austin Pendleton

At Steppenwolf Theatre

Detroit is a perplexing new play with absurdist tendencies  peopled by extremely dysfunctional anxiety-ridden  folks.

Playwright Lisa D’Amor’s commissioned new work, Detroit, is a most perplexing theatre experience. Kevin Depinet’s set consists of two “first-ring” suburban houses – small 1960’s structures built close to major cities (like Detroit). Today, theses homes are aging dilapidated structures hiding the American Optimism they once expressed.

We meet Mary (Laurie Metcalf) and Ben (Ian Barford) – a most dysfunctional couple hiding in their aging home as their fear of change in a world that seems to be moving too fast for them engulfs them.  Ben is a out-of-work bank loan officer trying to learn html to start a financial services website business. Mary is a wound-too-tight drunkard spouse bewildered by life and Ben. She is a neurotic ready to have her fears explode into fists of rage. This couple takes the general anxiety millions of middle class couples are experiencing to a new level of fear and desperation.

detroit by lisa d' Amour

They befriend a couple who has recently occupied the dilapidated home next door. A barbecue is arranged with Sharon (Kate Arrington) and Kenny (Kevin Anderson). These two are recovering addicts. Sharon is filled with free associate rambling monologues depicting her past. A pattern emerges in this play as each character has one or more rambling monologues as each tries to communicate their past and their fears.  The barbecue is filled with strong uneasy tension that gradually escalates into a series of out-of-control events that gives new meaning to dysfunctional behavior.

detroit by lisa d' Amour

Filled with absurdist behavior flavored with much pop/psycho-babble, Detroit demonstrates how two couples go over the top culminating in a gritty, raw and totally tasteless scene that finds both couples braking down into total chaos. The scene ends up with a furniture burning that eventually ends up with Ben and Mary’s house being engulfed.

detroit by lisa d' Amour

This upsetting play finds tedious black comedic elements blended with the underlying tension whose bases is never fully explained. The long-winded monologues grew tiresome by the third one. Also, the early fits of extreme rage mounted by Laurie Metcalf’s Mary came out of nowhere.  It seems that each of these wacky characters have a phobia concerning the unknown.  All four are desperate to reveal their true selves to others.  The manic, over-the-top performances, especially by Laurie Metcalf and Kate Arrington were hard to take. The sheer crudeness that found Metcalf vomiting on the stage and her penchant to sit with her legs apart while wearing a dress so that her panties showed was tasteless. This off-beat show had a mixed reaction from the audience – about a third laughed throughout  and most, like me, sat with our mouths open wondering why Steppenwolf Theatre would mount such a  disgusting play?

If you enjoy gritty, off-beat absurdist dysfunctional work filled with intensely emotional outbursts and crude humor, than you’ll like Detroit. I found it too extreme and pointless.

Somewhat Recommended

Tom Williams

At Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, IL,,  312-335-1650, tickets $20 – $73, Tuesdays thru Sundays at 7:30 pm, Saturday & Sunday matinees at 3 pm,  Wednesday matinees at 2 pm – Oct 20, 27 and Nov 3, running time is 1 hour, 40 minutes without intermission,through November 7, 2010

3 thoughts on “Detroit

  • Rose39

    I guess that I was in the 1/3 of the audience that loved it! I thought that, while the script wasn’t my absolute favorite, the performances were strong enough to compensate for any shortcomings in the writing. I found it to be yet another production that showcased the brilliance and fearlessness of the Steppenwolf actors. Ms. Metcalf’s performance was particularly moving. I highly recommend this show to anyone in the area.

  • Child Ofair

    The term ‘absurdist’ is used very freely and often incorrectly. ‘Absurdism’ is a term coined by the late Martin Esslin . . . wellll . . . You can google all that. This show, while it has scenes in which, as some might say, ‘absurd’ things happen, it is not remotely an ‘absurdist’ piece. Why not just use the word ‘absurd’ for scenes which seem silly or unlikely? The play over all seems quite naturalist and not at all ‘abstracted,’ as the term absurdist suggests. The production is also quite grounded and naturalistic and easy to follow.

    The performance here of Laurie Metcalf, whom we all know and love (or hate) as TV’s ‘Jackie,’ is one which rises head, shoulders, elbows and ass above the rest of the very fine and capable cast. If you want to see comic genius on stage, go to this. On the first or second night of preview (sorry, I can’t remember which), the show was already tight and ready for tweaking. To see and hear Metcalf pour out her confessional speech to her newly found friend, Sharon, is to see an ability with language and timing, at once mercurial and masterful. What some might say is that she plays her ‘Jackie,’ character again here. I say, my friend, go anyway, it’s that good. In a full length play (well, 90 minutes, but isn’t that to the better?) her energy and expertise never flag. What others might say is that she is somewhat miscast. The role of ‘Mary,’ the ‘good’ wife of the two couples, seems to be the central character, but Metcalf plunges wackily into the play from her first moments on stage. The possibly more conservative ‘Mary,’ perhaps wouldn’t have a drinking problem if it weren’t for the bad economy, her husband’s lack of work, and her own responsibility to be the sole breadwinner of the couple. But drink a bit, she does, and begins to engage in more and more kooky behavior, as she is encouraged by the new neighbors to let loose. This Mary, portrayed by Metcalf doesn’t have as much of a journey as another actress might have given her. But gentle reader, go,anyway. I say it again, go anyway.

    The play is tasteless? I’m afraid I think that to classify this play in that way is a bit prudish. Are you watching any TV? Any at all? The play: Disgusting? No, it’s one of the better new ones you’ll see in a while.

    Plenty of relevance, for those of you who are into it, the economy and all that. More interesting is the oft-revisited but still scintillating if done well set-up of two-couples-who-are-kinda-like-one-another-what’ll-happen? How will the drunk, high, skewed Kenny and Sharon affect the ostensibly more straight-laced Mary and Ben? They send ’em round the bend a bit and perhaps they get back on their feet. Hmmm. I was hoping Ben and Mary would ask the uncle if the house was free, could they rent it . . .? But they have that pesky insurance money, don’t they? Despite her constantly wanting to ‘live in a cave!’ Mary with Ben in tow will go back to the downwardly mobile middle class and a heightened distrust of neighbors.

    Again, to miss Metcalf’s performance, and indeed, that of this fine cast, would be a sadness . . . go, my friend, get the 20 for 20 deal on day of perf, and you’ll never regret it.

  • Dan

    maaaaan this review is misleading. “Extreme?” “Pointless?” “Crude?” I’m not sure you understood or appreciated this show. This is a well-crafted, sharply paced, hilarious, and yes–authentic–(I come from this lower-middle-class suburbia. D’Amour captured the way people here talk without elevating it to parody) play.

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