BWW Reviews: Explosive DETROIT Opens Woolly Mammoth's Season

A timely addition to the Washington, DC theatre landscape, the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company season opener, Detroit by Lisa D'Amour, offers a glimpse at life in modern America. No, the suburb depicted here is not one of yesteryear where everyone worked nine to five jobs and made a decent living, and neighborhood barbeques and dances were commonplace. No, it's not a place where an individual would not think twice about asking a neighbor for a cup of sugar rather than driving to the closest 24-hour minimart. At least, it's not completely that kind of place.

When two couples with houses back to back in an average suburb (though not necessarily one outside of Detroit - as the title suggests - but a place 'like' it) try to 'bend the rules' of life in modern suburbia, it initially gives them coping mechanisms in times of personal turmoil and distress. Yet, the move to restore neighborly relations has some pretty disastrous and disturbing results. Some are even life-altering.

It's clear why Detroit - which premiered at Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theatre Company and most recently received a run at NYC's esteemed Playwrights Horizon - is a Pulitzer Prize finalist. D' Amour's witty yet thoughtfully dialogue, combined with a gritty depiction of modern America in the midst of an economic downturn, offers valuable insights into the very values and experiences that define much of our contemporary nation.

At presented by Woolly, with solid direction from John Vreeke, theatre-going Washingtonians get an in-your-face glance at the world beyond the Beltway today. Assisted by five extremely solid company members (with Michael Willis is a smaller supporting role), we learn what being neighbors means, and the good, the bad, and the ugly effects of sharing (or hiding) your own personal circumstances with those who live close to you.

Is getting to know your neighbors today really all that worth it? Well, it's complicated - at least in the world of the play.

D'Amour focuses her social investigation on two neighboring couples who are largely representative of life in this country - at least at first glance. Mary (Emily K. Townley) and Ben (Tim Getman) were the definition of a reasonably successful middle class couple prior to Ben losing his job as a result of his company downsizing. Ben, now unemployed though in the midst of starting his own business (or so he says), and Mary are seeing the effects of his employment change on their marriage as well as their financial stability. On the other hand, the younger Sharon (Gabriela Fernández-Coffey) and Kenny (Danny Gavigan) haven't quite had that kind of stability as a result of some bad choices. They appear to want to get it together - at least initially when they first meet Mary and Ben - but face obstacles.

D'Amour is mostly successful at using average neighbor get-togethers (grilling steaks or burgers in the backyard for all to enjoy, for instance) to demonstrate the social distance between these two couples while illuminating the commonalities across their two life paths. Because the narrative is so carefully constructed - tracking how the neighbors first meet and their interactions - and her characters are so well-defined, the explosive ending (the details of which won't be spoiled here) is appropriately surprising yet not so completely far-fetched that it erases all that came before it. At times, she has a tendency of hitting the audience over the head to remind them that the suburb where Mary, Ben, Sharon, and Kenny reside isn't quite like the idyllic ones we hear about from years ago. Erik Pearson's projections of life during these sunnier times also highlight this, but they are less like a sledge hammer. However, in the case of the Woolly mounting of this play, the production elements and the acting are of such high caliber that these writing deficiencies become more tolerable, or, at the very least, less noticeable.

Tom Kamm's astoundingly realistic set - featuring two houses, yards, and an extraordinary amount of detail - and Ivania Stack's telling costumes give valuable insights as to where the two couples reside both geographically and socially speaking. As embodied by the four member principal cast, it's nearly impossible not to be able to easily identify where each character comes from and what motivates/challenges him or her. Yet, the actors are careful not to give all of the clues about these characters away too fast. As a result, the action in the ending scene (featuring impressive lighting and sound from Colin K. Bills and Christopher Baine, respectively) is grounded in what comes before it while still being very climactic.

Fernández-Coffey's initially awkward and frantic take on Sharon stands in stark contrast to Townley's initially very reserved take on Mary. Likewise, it's clear from the get-go that Kenny, as portrayed by Gavigan, has a bit of a devious side and doesn't fit into Ben's straight-laced world. As the two couples get to know each other better (in good and bad ways) the physical and emotional facades start to disappear and we see the commonalities and differences are more substantial than they appear at first glimpse. Without all four actors' layered performances and commitment to giving raw, 'ugly' performances - particularly Fernández-Coffey and Townley who are tremendously authentic - it would be more difficult to see the play as more than a well-written, socially conscious dark comedy that few in our area (at least among the theatergoing public) can relate to.

A strong start to the season, I'm excited to see what Woolly has in store for the rest of the year.

Running Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes with no intermission.

Detroit plays through October 6, 2013 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company - 641 D Street, NW in Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202-393-3939 or purchase them online.

Photo Credit: Stan Barouh.

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