You think things got out of control when Nick and Honey came to visit George and Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Try Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit on for size. When Ben and Mary make the acquaintance of Kenny and Sharon, the roof gets razed. Actually, burned to a crisp, if you’ll pardon a spoiler alert.
D’Amour’s hectic play about the effects of economic desperation on a big city’s (Detroit is never specified in spite of the play’s title) suburbs makes the case that while there’s a lot to be said for neighbors, there’s also a lot to be said against them. Out of work Ben (Steve Gunderson) and alcoholic-in-training Mary (Lisel Gorell-Getz) admit they’re friendless. So when they notice that the house next door, previously believed vacant, seems to have life stirring within it, they invite the new neighbors over for a cookout. (Grilling is a motif in this production, right up until the granddaddy of all grill jobs at the end – spoiler alert blown again.) Kenny (Jeffrey Jones) and Sharon (Summer Spiro) are, how to put this delicately? Oh, what the hell: white trash. They’re recovering addicts, too, but they’re affable and Sharon has the kind of wild abandon about her that repressed Ben and Mary crave. Not surprisingly, the next-door friendship soon goes haywire.
In this San Diego Rep production directed by Sam Woodhouse, Detroit is played largely for laughs. There are a couple of bloody accidents, one vomiting sequence, many moments of Sharon running amok, and an overlong Act 2 backyard rap with each character indulging his or her trashiest instincts. A slow, reflective denouement in which old man Frank (Robert Benedetti) walks around with a cane and tries to fill in all the unplugged metaphors feels contrived.
The actors are tireless, especially live-wire Spiro, who fills the Lyecum Space with manic energy. Gunderson is almost as winning as Ben, but in a quietly comical turn. The fire at the end of the show, however (final spoiler alert blown) is Detroit’s emotional high point.
More extended sketch comedy than wholly realized dramedy, Detroit is, in backyard BBQ parlance, a might overcooked. Pass the beer.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.