‘Detroit’ lands close to home


Riverside Theatre — through Feb. 11

Kehry Anson Lane. Jennifer Fawcett, John Miersen and Katy Slaven in Riverside Theatre’s production of ‘Detroit.’ — photo by S. Benjamin Farrar

When is the last time you spoke to a neighbor? For me, I think it was around three years ago, when someone from a unit a few doors down knocked on our door out of the blue and asked to borrow a potato masher. (I lent it to him. In return, along with his thanks, he gave me a recipe for mashed potatoes that I’ve never used.)

In California this week, news emerged of parents who had held their 13 children captive for years, with little nourishment and less contact with the outside world. Neighbors were flummoxed, and in some cases came close to blaming themselves, with neighbor Kimberly Milligan wondering in the Los Angeles Times, “We’re not acres apart — how did no one see anything?”

Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit is about these issues. Until it’s not.

What’s compelling about the play, as my husband said when we discussed it after Friday’s opening night performance, is that it’s not immediately obvious what it’s trying to say. Well, he didn’t say that’s what made it compelling. He said that’s what would make it awfully hard to review — but I found that disconnect to be its most intriguing quality.

Detroit is, in many ways two plays in one, almost cleanly split down the middle. At the start, we get a jocular exploration of the trials and tribulations of trying to know our neighbors, of making friends as adults and of the facile civility of modern suburbia. It’s set in a specific-but-universalized locale that could be here, with characters who could be us.

By the end, we have what might pretentiously be called an allegory, but is at the very least a fable, with archetypal trickster figures wreaking havoc to foster growth.

What’s fascinating about Riverside Theatre’s production of Detroit is that the marketing of the play seemed to lean heavily on the first half. They released a tongue-in-cheek promotional video of not-exactly-spontaneous ruminations on the meaning of America, filled with good-natured stereotypes. From the way they present it, you could easily expect a two-hour modern take on John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses.”

"Detroit" video 1: What says "America" to you?

What says "America" to you? For Riverside Theatre's upcoming production of "Detroit," we asked folks this very question. The responses are … pretty eye-opening.

Posted by Rob Merritt on Saturday, January 6, 2018

In contrast, director Angie Toomsen’s vision was laser focused on the second half of the play. This is the sort of situation where Toomsen is in her artistic element, with actors strong enough to do the work freeing her up to play in a high-concept headspace. There was detail work scattered throughout the first act — moments that Toomsen let linger, clues that D’Amour set up that Toomsen highlighted — that pointed towards the themes of the second. And the second act itself is where she draws you in, sets you up and knocks you out.

The rough plot of Detroit follows Ben and Mary as they attempt to befriend Sharon and Kenny, a couple who have recently moved in next door to them. They make small talk over dinner, secrets are shared, blood is drawn — intimacy is (seemingly) earned. The four go through the process of getting to know one another over several days.

Scene four, which falls just before where Riverside put the act break (there is none written into the script), is the start of the true takeover of the un-real. The parallel structure to scene one is the first element of the play that truly starts to pull you into the realm of capital-s Story, into the realization that there is more than meets the eye going on — is it simply the author introducing repetition to make her point? Or is it the tricksters playing their games? — but it is still grounded, still visceral.

Jennifer Fawcett, Katy Slaven, John Miersen and, Kehry Anson Lane in Riverside Theatre’s production of ‘Detroit.’ — photo by S. Benjamin Farrar

It’s scene five, after intermission, when things truly start to go left. Katy Slaven, as Sharon, hits her stride here. She is a consummate storyteller, and Sharon’s frequent monologuing throughout requires an actor like Slaven, who can draw you in. Between her and John Miersen as Kenny, with his fabulous, sometimes extremely subtle, physical work, it’s easy for the audience to go right along with Ben and Mary as they get sucked further and further in to their neighbors’ wildness. As a pair, they perfect the trickster trope.

None of the scenes in the second act seem quite real. Kehry Anson Lane as Ben and Jennifer Fawcett as Mary keep trying gamely to ground things in reality, but their counterparts are having none of it — and it’s only through giving in that they can get through. Lane is finding his ideal theatrical home in Riverside’s intimate space, where his expressive face — which would be lost to stadium seating balcony seats — can be fully experienced. His Ben is lost, and watching him find himself again is a joy. Fawcett turns in a fantastic physical performance, and is at every moment walking claustrophobia — regularly too close for comfort in her characterization.

Like all tricksters, Slaven and Miersen are likable, hilarious and a little bit scary. They imbue Sharon and Kenny with the kind of untrustworthiness that makes you, as an audience member, and certainly Ben and Mary, trust them more. You’re in on the joke. They’re crazy, but they like you, so you’re safe — you’re on the right side of the danger.

Until you’re not.

Riverside’s production of Detroit is heightened by S. Benjamin Farrar’s outstanding set design, and the sound design (uncredited) is a delight as well. What makes it worth your time, though, are the moments of realization, and the conclusion, that Fawcett and Lane winningly bring home at the end, that life is made for living, before it escapes you entirely.

Detroit runs at Riverside Theatre through Sunday, Feb. 11. Tickets are $18-30 (with $12 student rush tickets available on Thursdays). On Saturday, Feb. 3, there will be a talkback with the playwright after the performance, followed by a reception. Anyone with a ticket for any performance is welcome at the talkback. There will also be a cast talkback, hosted by Miriam Gilbert, after the Thursday, Feb. 8 performance.

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