In a word, something like deception seems to govern Detroit, Lisa D'Amour's hour-and-40-minute dramedy at TheatreWorks till Feb. 8. It's a class-based sleight-of-hand, both white-collar and blue-, among thirtyish Ben, Mary, Kenny and Sharon, all of whom appear not to realize that they're deceiving each other, or themselves.
Moreover, in an era of ruthless downsizing and the treasonous export of jobs overseas, someone seems to be pulling the chair out from under this hapless quartet. Who, or what, is doing this to them? We never really get a clear answer.
Aggravating the business are serious missteps by Ben and Mary in bridging the social gap and making offerings to their neighbors, since they at the same time claim their own slightly higher social territory. Mary, for instance, gives Kenny and Sharon a coffee table that she callously announces is beneath her own taste. At the moment Ben and Kenny seem to transcend their boundaries and become friends, Ben insists on payment of $25 from Kenny for his "financial services," which wage-slave Kenny can't afford, or use, in the first place. Both couples persist in their out-of-orbit efforts to fraternize, and to eventual catastrophe.
All this takes place on a set by Jonathan Wentz that will look pointedly familiar to Springs audiences — bearing beige, cramped "townhomes" that betoken a falsely communal way of life.
D'Amour and director Shana Gold don't clear our minds of the question of whether or not Kenny and Sharon are as "sincere" as Ben and Mary in their attempts to make friends. But what fascinates and cajoles in Detroit is how close they come to seeing through their predicament and arriving at common ground. They cautiously examine the baits and snares of suburbia, the plastic ferns, double-baked potatoes and similar do-dads from the ever-changing galaxy of cultural cheap tricks that hold the whole thing together.
Of potatoes, simply reheat the plebian staple and it's transformed into a delicacy for everyone! Sharon, however, sharply played by Carley Cornelius, comes very close to realizing that it's still, after all, just a potato, and so phooey. And we find it, and Cornelius, very entertaining as a result.
To Detroit's detriment, on the other hand, is the failure of either D'Amour or Gold to choose specific incidents that propel the action toward the play's unavoidable consequences. Detroit seems to shoot past in a blur of both keenly observed topicality and ambiguous low-calorie angst, summed up by Kenny's Uncle Frank (Michael Demaree), who adds to, rather than unravels, the confusing and violent mystery that's occurred.
Still, D'Amour and the actors at TheatreWorks are precise, energetic, and well-balanced in showing us what it's like to grope through a forest when the breadcrumbs are gone. As Ben, Greg Wise desperately puts all his remaining marbles into an Internet business, that faceless genie who could never let a nice guy down — and Wise's performance verges on exceptional. As his wife, Mary, Shannon Haragan dispenses razor-sharp fragments of terror when disguising her false hospitality. Todd d'Amour (no relation) as Kenny gives her plenty of reason to, in a performance of growing menace. He adds a compelling and bitter footnote to D'Amour's patio scrimmage — that being or aspiring to the "middle class" is not so much a matter of keeping up with the Joneses, as keeping away from them.