People are always complaining that the world’s not what it used to be.
Parents can’t let kids wander around their neighborhoods unsupervised the way they could in generations past. Neighbors don’t know each other anymore and go out of their way to avoid contact.
This sense of anxious disconnection lies at the heart of Lisa D’Amour’s 2010 comedy Detroit, a play in which two couples who live in adjacent houses awkwardly try to get to know each other.
Detroit isn’t necessarily set in Detroit. It takes place in a suburb right outside a midsize American city–any midsize American city–that’s seen better days.
But America’s “Motor City” evokes the specter of economic collapse, and a nagging sense of how easy it would be to lose everything permeates the drama .
In other words, Detroit is a state of mind.
The financial angst is palpable from the first moments of Josh Costello’s staging at Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley.
Middle aged and middle class Mary and Ben, who’ve been living in the neighborhood for years, invite the young couple next door over for a backyard cookout to try to get to know them.
Sharon and Kenny have just moved in. They have no furniture and there’s something faintly disturbing about them.
Sharon (Luisa Frasconi, bubbly and flirtatious) cheerfully blurts out inappropriate or bizarre things, such as her insistence that Ben must be secretly British when he’s clearly as American as Homer Simpson. Kenny (a laconic Patrick Kelly Jones) is more cagey and given to spells of manic twitchiness. They talk blithely about how they met in rehab and a little too fondly about past drug-fueled revels.
Amy Resnick simmers with anxiety as Mary, who’s both suspicious of the new neighbors and desperate to befriend them. She’s the only one of foursome with a real job. She drinks too much and she’s supportive but concerned about her husband’s new business plan.
Ben was laid off as a loan officer at a bank and now he’s endlessly working on a website for his own business as a financial consultant.
Jeff Garrett’s portrayal of the buffoonish Ben is more broadly goofy than the other performances. With his gaping smile and rubbery gait, he looks like he’s appearing in a different play from his fellow cast members.
Still, it doesn’t take long for the rest of the characters to catch up on the weirdness front.
All four suburbanites are on the verge of some kind of breakdown, and the freakouts quickly start flying in all directions.
The director and his cast deftly build the mounting agitation until it reaches a level of wild frenzy. Inanimate objects fall apart with alarming frequency, as if to mimic the human meltdowns going on around them: The patio umbrella keeps collapsing, the sliding glass door jams and a half-constructed deck may as well be a bear trap.
Gnawing at an open wound buried deep in the American psyche, the play is hilarious and unnerving at the same time. Implicit in the dream that anyone can succeed is the message that it’s your fault if you fail, and the line between the two outcomes is perilously thin.
Built on a foundation of imaginary money such as credit or the stock market, every house on the street is a house of cards.
Detroit runs through July 19, 2015 at Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit auroratheatre.org.