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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
DETROIT
at the National (Cottesloe)

STATE OF THE NATION
By DONALD HUTERA

  Will Adamsdale and Clare Dunne/ Ph: Catherine Ashmore

Just to be clear, Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit is not set in that city. Although there is perhaps some working-class resonance in the choice of title, she might have easily slapped the name of any other mid-sized American metropolis on her script. But instead D’Amour uses particularities of character – specifically, two contrasting couples whom we witness developing a friendly, but also troubling yet liberating and, to us, sharply comic relationship during a series of backyard barbecues – to shed a bright, skewed light on a peculiarly suburban brand of the American dream. Directed by the veteran stage and screen actor Austin Pendleton (who also helmed the premiere of this Steppenwolf Theatre production in Chicago in 2010), the show packs a delightful punch.
 
Genial Ben (Stuart McQuarrie) and fretful Mary (Justine Mitchell) are the supposedly stable pair who first invites their new, younger neighbors Kenny (Will Adamsdale) and Sharon (Clare Dunne) over for a meal. Gradually – and artfully, too, thanks to a confluence of script, direction and performance – the visibility of cracks in Ben and Mary’s marriage increases (e.g. her stress-relieving secret drinking, his pipe dreams of a website business.) At the same time, more of the back-story of the duo next door is revealed (including the fact that they met in a drugs rehabilitation programme).
 
Under Pendleton’s expert guidance, D’Amour’s script plays out like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as if retooled by Sam Shepard. Temperamentally, however, D’Amour’s ties are stronger with Shepard than Albee. She has an ear for the habitual rhythms and quirks of vernacular speech ("Let’s throw these puppies on the grill!" or "I got a can of Manwich") as well as a knack for hitting upon the sometimes optimistic, knee-jerk niceties that people unwittingly employ to mask or deflect deeper-rooted anxieties. Abetted by some acute body language (with "choreographer" credit belonging to Arthur Pita), the verbal details coalesce into a bigger authorial statement. Bit by bit, Detroit builds up an image of a contemporary society in economic doldrums and almost hysterically worried about underlying personal failings. Without wanting to give away the climax (plus an extended coda from a fifth character well-played by Christian Rodska), suffice to say that D’Amour is depicting an America on fire from the inside out – a restrictive, burnt-out culture that seems to have at best a shaky hold on its core values.
 

Despite its small, chamber-like size, Detroit has the kind of thematic reach that merits recognition from the Pulitzer Prize committee. (It was a 2011 finalist.) Apart from the heft it might hold as an "important" state-of-the-nation play, the production shapes up into shrewdly humorous and acutely observed entertainment. Each of the four main actors delivers a spot-on characterization that Pendleton channels into a four-part harmony. Thanks to crack timing, his skilful cast knows just how to temper exaggeration for comic effect with emotional authenticity. What little plot there is provides reason for the sexes to split up, but even then the resultant scenes of girl-talk and male bonding ring funny and true.

 


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