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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Detroit — Philadephia Theatre Company at Suzanne Roberts Theatre

untitled (114)The difference between Gina Gionfriddo, whose “Rapture, Blister, Burn” is searing the stage at the Wilma Theater, and Lisa D’Amour, whose “Detroit” is fouling the boards for Philadelphia Theatre Company, is the difference between surehanded command of diverse material and the off-handed peddling of wild conceits that play for what they are, claptrap.

While Gionfriddo consistently proves her value as a playwright, thinker, and entertainer, D’Amour, for the second season in a row proves she is a clever charlatan who is more likely to bore with her foolery than dazzle with her insight or wisdom. To Gionfriddo, a joke is the natural offspring of the character or the moment. To D’Amour, a joke is the strangest or most absurd construct that can drip from her head at a given moment, a silly notion trying to pass for humor or wit. When you look at the playwrights, you see the distinction between a gifted artist and a lucky hack.

For the second season in a row, local theaters have produced D’Amour’s half-baked maunderings and third-rate plays. Last year’s “Cherokee” for the Wilma at least had the excuse of being a world premiere, untested material that may, goodness knows, have had a spark of promise.

It did not. It took a ludicrous situation and made it more unbelievable with magical realism. It fished at making points but never came through with anything coherent or cohesive enough to matter. It ends as preposterously as it begins. It shows the sensibility of a fake who expects to impress with flimsy metaphors and new age ideas about nature and getting back to one’s roots.

“Detroit” received a lot of positive attention when it opened off-Broadway. Perhaps that’s why two of Philadelphia’s most sensible artistic directors, Blanka Zizka and Sara Garonzik, gave D’Amour a production. Jumpin’ on the ole bandwagon! I hope each has learned her lesson about the insult D’Amour is to her audience. Lisa D’Amour may have a place in the theater, but the way I see it, it’s tantamount to a piece of hardware, specifically a dead weight.

“Detroit” is much more finished and polished piece than “Cherokee” was. D’Amour does manage to have her metaphor make sense and even resonate. The sorry part is there is nothing much beyond to metaphor to engage our interest.

Although her play is called “Detroit,” D’Amour, in a move that’s typical of her style of humor, says it is set in a place that is “not necessarily Detroit.”

This declaration is a rare bit of cleverness. “Detroit” is ostensibly about the decline of the American lifestyle as symbolized by the potentially devastating effect difficult economic times have on Americans, their attitude towards work, and their reaction to reduced expendable resources. Detroit becomes a metaphor, a good one, for a society that falls apart and can’t seem to recover its ambition or vitality, a society that gives up and abandons its standards when going gets rough, and that believes personal effort is not likely to be rewarded anyhow.

As opposed to the literal Detroit, rotting away from neglect and poor planning in Michigan, D’Amour extends her tale of ever-sloppier sloth and resignation to any place where people are losing jobs they held for years and can’t replace them. She depicts any city, town, or suburb with a populace that has given up and is content to mark time, and even become destructive, until someone other than they find a way to restore the luster and dignity that once was.

As a metaphor, D’Amour has struck on something truly profound. Her problem as a writer is following through in a way that best depicts or expresses all she knows and wants to say.

Here is where D’Amour founders. She can project an idea, even a good and laudable one, but she can’t make it come alive verbally on stage.

Physically, I have to give D’Amour some credit. She constructs the framework for a play that contrasts two couples, both from the middle class and both in disarray.

Ben and Mary’s troubles are just beginning. Ben has worked for a bank for a couple of decades but is laid off in a downsizing wave. He wonders aloud who is doing all the work the bank requires considering so many were let go in the putsch that eliminated him. He also says he and Mary have been spared so far, about eight months into Ben’s unemployment from using their savings, a condition that may not endure much longer as Ben is on his last month of receiving his severance money. Mary continues to work, but in a job that cannot pay much. She and Ben will probably have to struggle for a while to meet their mortgage and to preserve a semblance of the lifestyle to which they’ve become accustomed, e.g. shopping at will and entertaining guests with steaks grilled on their outdoor, propane fueled barbecue.

Ben, to occupy himself and to prepare for a future that may not contain a new full-time job, is setting up a web site through which he hopes to attract clients that will hire him as a financial planning consultant.

As they face uncertainty, Ben and Mary’s house, modest but handsome, is well-kept and filled with conveniences one or the other trots out to their finished patio when required.

Next door, or stage left to Ben and Mary on the Suzanne Roberts Theatre stage, live Kenny and Sharon.

Kenny’s wardrobe consists of an endless parade of black T-shirts that may very well be one T-shirt worn over and over again. Sharon’s clothing has more variety but it limited in style to the torn jeans and loose-fitting colorful tops that have been popular in the last five years or so. That is when Sharon isn’t dressed in only a white V-neck T-shirt long enough to reach her upper thigh and cover panties she may or may not be wearing.

Kenny and Sharon are friendly and handy, but they have nothing to show for their years on Earth. The ramshackle tract home they bought from an uncle of Kenny’s who inherited it has no furniture beyond a coffee table Mary gives them out of pure concern for Kenny and Sharon’s house being so sparse.

The couple’s bed is a mattress on the floor and is covered haphazardly with sheets. Kenny is building a deck to extend from the back of the house, but his progress is glacial, and all he’s managed so far is a loose assortment of unnailed boards that form a kind of platform that may not tolerate much weight or speed.

This lackadaisical incompleteness is part of Kenny’s makeup. He and Sharon are serial dopers who met at a rehab hospital either eight years or three months before “Detroit” begins. They can’t quite get their stories straight on that. The couple is lucky to have any roof or even to be free from a medical or correctional institution. Neither is dangerous, but both, in spite of talking about finding work, are not much more than the dropouts who would have been labeled “hippies” 50 years ago.

Kenny and Sharon seem like people worthy of a break. They admit to most of their follies and claim, with evidence of justification, they are ready to be mature and accept all it takes to enjoy an adult existence in 21st century America.

Kenny, blond, tattooed, and jaunty, is particularly likeable, while Sharon has heart and understands Mary’s theory that everyone can benefit from an outing that will take them back to nature and away from the everyday that has become a tad squalid and joyless.

You see D’Amour is not devoid of ideas or of characters and situations that have dramatic potential. Her vision for “Detroit” is sound, and she has created realistic characters and put them in circumstances that support her metaphor about the wasting of America.

So where is the crime that makes her a blight on the theater and makes me wish she is never produced locally again?

It’s in the writing and, pardon the pun, the execution. Everything seems so deliberate and contrived, even beyond the contrivances that constitute all plays. It’s as if D’Amour thinks up zany behavior and puts on a page without thinking about how this or that bit will figure into a play.

D’Amour has provided a construct worth thinking about, and characters who share plights with many in America today, but she can’t be straightforward or intense in her storytelling or script writing. “Detroit” goes awry and tests our patience because D’Amour is so self-conscious in her composition. For humor, she looks to the strange. She’ll have a character mention something like a polka-dotted chimpanzee walking down I-694 to get a rise from the absurdity of the idea, but the joke backfires because it smacks of someone who would spout anything as long as it sounds weird and make you think her sense of humor is antic when D’Amour is really inept at forming a real joke.

D’Amour has characters talk for effect and not to convey information or entertain. She plots everything to be bizarre for bizarre sake. She aims at being shocking or provocative while she’s really being flashy and desperate.

Her humor crashes like a lead balloon. Her general observations are fine, but her specific ones are obsequiously cute and labored. You believe the situation Ben, Mary, Kenny, and Sharon are in, but you don’t believe what they are saying or how neatly they relate to one another. Ben, by all appearance, would be suspicious of and look askance at Kenny, even if he can fix his screen door track. Kenny and Sharon would find their neighbors formal and dowdy. The two couples would more likely reinforce the trend of neighbors who don’t commune or know each other than be the ones to buck it.

Beyond her theme, D’Amour displays no conviction. She’s like a driver who has some idea of where to steer the car but can quite operate the pedals or gear shift. She exhausts her ideas in her premise for a play and has no talent or ear for dialogue that would allow her to carry through that premise, as Gionfriddo does. D’Amour is either heavy-handed so that everything clunks, or capricious so that lines or images seem to come out of the blue with no purpose. Including that of entertaining.

That’s the trouble with “Detroit.” In spite of having a decent premise, and an excellent production, it plods and thuds to the point of becoming tedious and boring. It pretends to amusement when it is, at best, self-consciously juvenile.

The virtues of “Detroit” are crushed by its unending plethora of faults. D’Amour does not entertain. She rambles. Perhaps, she gets in one funny line now and them. It’s not enough. Some of Ben’s revelations, and those of Kenny’s uncle who comes to talk to Ben and Mary following a disaster of Kenny’s making, can be ironic or ring with truth, but for the most part, D’Amour seems able only to amuse herself with delusions of cleverness.

“Detroit” becomes dull and wearisome in spite of the best efforts of Geneviève Perrier, Steven Rishard, Matteo J. Scammell, K.O. DelMarcelle, and Tom McCarthy to keep it energetic or exciting.

The problem is all of the dancing, gyrating, and physical moves the cast does only adds to the impression of self-consciousness. It reeks of actors randomly filling time, well and with some gusto, but not in a way that seems organic even when a physical sequence derives directly from D’Amour’s script.

Via Ben, we glean all D’Amour seeks to convey early in Maria Mileaf’s production for PTC. Except for some curiosity about Kenny and Sharon’s past or wonder about their actual entitlement to their uncle’s home, there is not much to keep us engaged or concentrated after that, no matter how active Mileaf has her cast be. We certainly aren’t invited to take an interest in Ben’s web site or whether he or Kenny can find a job.

In basic theatrical ways, Mileaf does a fine job. The fault with “Detroit” is in D’Amour’s writing and not in the PTC staging. Mileaf and cast work hard to make something happen on the Roberts stage. D’Amour doesn’t provide them with the tools they need. As Marcia Saunders, David Ingram, and others learned last year doing “Cherokee,” you can pull out all you know about engaging an audience, and it won’t help if the material you have to work with is drivel.

By the time “Detroit” hits any high points or aims for intense drama, as when Kenny takes matters to an extreme during a beer and vodka-aided pot party in the unfenced yards the couples share, it’s too late for the gambit to be any more than a curiosity. Patience and regard for “Detroit” has already disintegrated out of too much of the same thing over and over again. D’Amour even plots two accidents and a planter’s wart for Mary that have a similar effect and renders the second injury old hat when it should be at least a little alarming and dramatic. And not because we learn that Kenny and Sharon have only one towel and that it’s dirty.

The cast does what it can to keep all alive and fresh. You almost take pity on this fine ensemble for having to work so hard to make “Detroit” happen every night.

Steven Rishard is properly Babbitty as Ben. Rishard looks like an emblem of the diminishing middle class Ben is supposed to represent. He always seems to be eager to start something, and he always seems ready to pounce on business. His grooming is always impeccable. Even his lounging-around-the-yard clothes are crisp and look almost as if they’ve been ironed.

His attitude towards Kenny and Sharon is one of wonder, mostly at their getting by with so little,. Rishard’s Ben is adept at the manly suburban activities such as barbecuing but shows himself to be the common procrastinator and bumbler D’Amour understands that many of us become when we all left to our own devices and don’t have a set or demanding schedule.

Ben sort of enjoys being at leisure while Mary works, just as he allegedly delights in honing his financial advice web site to perfection.   Rishard has Ben’s character down from his deep, serious voice, with which he declares he’s putting “these puppies on the grill” each time he barbecues to his stiff but enthusiastic way of being as mischievous as Kenny, e.g. suggesting the guys go to a strip dive on the highway or indulging with alacrity when the prospect of smoking weed arises.

Matteo J. Scammell slides into the character of Kenny as seamlessly and as integrally as he played the clear-eyed brother in the Walnut’s “Other Desert Cities” last season.

Scammell simply lives his roles. Kenny is a scruffy, go-with-the-flow stoner who says he realizes life has a purpose, or at least some minimal requirements if you intend to eat and have running water, but who is easily persuaded to slip back into his lax, addictive ways, visits to prisons and hospitals apparently having no real lasting effect on him.

To his credit, Scammell makes Kenny a charmer, the sort of everyday guy who like to have around because he’s talkative and spontaneously funny. You half believe he wants to reform and make a go of living with Sharon as a typical neighbor in the development when his uncle’s 65-year-old house stands.

Kenny and Sharon get a telling taste of suburban life when a neighbor comes to complain about their dog defecating on her lawn when Kenny and Sharon don’t have a dog. The kicker comes when the woman won’t take not having a dog as an excuse.

K.O. DelMarcelle shows how hard Sharon strives to fit in, despite every instinct in her body telling her she’ll never survive in Mary’s world. Her Sharon is energetic and wants to be helpful to Ben and Mary. Sharon ties, but like Kenny, she is more accustomed to life on the scuffle with some drugs around to ease whatever ennui she feels.

Geneviève Perrier is down-to-Earth as Mary, the responsible, plangently content suburbanite among the quartet.

Mary has some restless urges. A campground 12 miles from her home entices her and makes her want to forget all of her domestic comforts and return to nature.

This is a recurring theme in D’Amour’s work, and in “Detroit,” Mary enlists Sharon to go with her on a weekend camping excursion. Even after confusing traffic scotches that plan and sets up the debacle that will bring Ben and Mary to some sense of reality, Mary retains her notion that salvation of a poignant kind lurks in the nearby woods.

Tom McCarthy, a relative stranger these days to the local boards he helped establish and trod with such regularity, exudes reason and old-time values as Kenny’s uncle who visits Ben and Mary following the somewhat self-inflicted blow that alters their lives while also putting the couple back on a sane track.

Maria Mileaf does what she can to stir some action, but no amount of creativity could defeat the obstacles with which Lisa D’Amour hobbled her . Scammell’s kinetic Kenny, and a penchant among all four nuclear characters to burst into song or dance, provides some liveliness, but D’Amour’s play is all concept, and good and on target as that concept is, it can’t and doesn’t entertain consistently or thoroughly.

Vince Mountain suggests a lot with a little with his basic set, the backs of two contrasting homes. You get the sense from what is really a flat, obviously gussied up to look like a house, that both homes have been lived in and are central to the characters.

Busy, busy Janus Stefanowicz chooses outfits that perfectly denote the characters — crisp, colorful polo shirts over pressed shorts or slacks for Ben, a black pocket-T and torn pants for Kenny. Sharon looks as if she can share Kenny’s wardrobe, although the has a taste for colorfully patterned tops. Tom McCarthy is unfailingly identifiable as a real suburbanite visitor to his old neighborhood. Geneviève is appropriately given 21st century dowdy to wear as Mary.

The PTC program doesn’t tell who is responsible for “Detroit’s” fine special effects, but no matter whether it’s Mountain, lighting designer Nicole Pearce, or production director Roy W. Backes and his crew, kudos are in order.

“Detroit” runs through Sunday, November 9, as produced by the Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, 7 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 1 p.m. Wednesday, 2 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $59 to $25 and can be obtained by calling 215-985-0420 or visiting www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.

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