REVIEW: Detroit (Steppenwolf Theatre)

Great characters and a plot that fails to ignite

 

A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

   
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
  
Detroit
     
Written by Lisa D’Amour
Directed by Austin Pendleton

at Steppenwolf Theatre,
1650 N. Halsted (map)
through November 7   |   tickets: $20-$73  |  more info

By Catey Sullivan

Steppenwolf Theatre’s Detroit is an example of a production with great direction and  top-drawer performances. It is also, unfortunately, a play defined by four characters in search of a plot. The less said about the fifth member of the cast – whose rambling, tacked-on epilogue is one sorry excuse for an ending – the better.

(left to right) – Ensemble members Laurie Metcalf, Kate Arrington and Kevin Anderson in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow. Playwright Lisa D’Amour’s tale of a subdivision in decline is all mood and little matter, which is to say there’s no story here, just a series of vignettes that provide character sketches of four dysfunctional suburbanites, none of whom changes during the 100-minute production. Yes, there’s major materialistic loss for half of the foursome on stage. Despite that, the characters of Detroit end up pretty much in the same place where they started. Were it not for director Austin Pendleton‘s killer cast – Laurie Metcalf, Kevin Anderson, Kate Arrington and Ian BarfordDetroit would be a complete non-starter.

The titular city is never mentioned. Life-size tract houses (literally within spitting distance of each other) fill the stage in Kevin Depinet’s meticulously detailed set (right down to leaves decaying in long-neglected gutters). They could be just outside any city in the U.S. – which may be the point. Josh Schmidt’s sound design – chirping birds, drowned out by the drone of distant traffic zooming by on some anonymous highway – indicate a suburban locale with a decidedly urban emphasis. Urban – in this case – doesn’t mean gleaming skyscrapers or city-dwelling sophisticates.  Detroit unfolds in a place of borderline shabbiness and barely-concealed desperation. Nothing quite works as it should here, not the malfunctioning patio umbrella that turns a backyard barbeque into a small disaster, and not grill master Ben (Barford), struggling to create an online business after being laid off from his job in a bank.

At curtain up, Ben and his wife Mary (Metcalf) are acting with enthusiastic good will, grilling steaks in a welcome-to-the-neighborhood cookout for newly moved in Sharon (Arrington) and Roger (Anderson).  On the surface, it’s a scene of All-American normalcy. But D’Amour’s dialogue keeps things on edge. People keep saying things that aren’t quite right, things that are in fact – the more you think on them – profoundly messed up. Mary, for all her smiling welcome, seems to be living on Planet Angry. Her words have an ugly sharpness that doesn’t jive with the graciously elaborate appetizers. Ben is living the American dream, an entrepreneur filled with ambition and smarts – except for the nagging question of how it is that somebody living on the margins of the nation’s economic pie can possibly succeed as a one-man financial planning enterprise.

 (counterclockwise from upper left) – Ensemble members Kate Arrington, Ian Barford, Kevin Anderson and Laurie Metcalf in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow. A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow. A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow. (left to right) – Ensemble members Laurie Metcalf, Kevin Anderson and Kate Arrington in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Sharon and Rob aren’t exactly Laura and Rob Petrie either. Sharon confides that she and Roger met in rehab, which is absolutely fine and dandy because they’re both obviously well on recovery’s road – employed, clear-eyed and  functional. It’s just a teensy bit odd that  they seem to own neither furniture nor a change of clothes. And  they do have intense, fond memories of a lost weekend in “Hotlanta”  that may or may not have involved free-basing meth. And Sharon cries a lot. And just one beer won’t hurt, not when your main problem has always been heroin, right? And that’s just the start of the kinks and quirks that pepper D’Amour’s  wonderful dialogue.

The problem with Detroit is that for all the marvelously rendered conversation, there’s no arc.  We get memorable scenes of memorable people talking – and eventually yelling and dirty dancing and recklessly playing with matches -  but there’s never anything much at stake. In the end, half of the foursome on stage simply vanishes. You certainly don’t need closure to create a successful drama, but you do need some sort of structure. Detroit, in the end, feels both static and incomplete.

A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow. What makes it worth seeing are the performances of four Steppenwolf ensemble members, each one at the top of their game. Metcalf, especially, brings a wild-eyed, dangerously suppressed rage to Mary. There’s something feral about her, and when that something boils over during a backyard barbeque-turned-Bacchanal, Metcalf puts on the crazy pants and turns them up to stun. Barford is equally effective in a quieter way, capturing the sad-sack weariness of a stay-at-home non-starter who has been out of the work force long enough to lose his spirit, maybe for good.  Arrington nails the E-Z Cheez ethos of a white-trash crackhead whacktress with a heart of gold while Anderson channels his inner eighth grade caveman as a good guy  who is a profoundly bad influence.

As for Robert Brueler‘s late-in-the-game appearance, it’s only tolerable because it’s relatively brief. I spent the first half of his expository  monologue trying to figure out what he was saying – enunciation isn’t Brueler’s strong suit – and the last half wishing he’d just wrap it up already.  There’s one reason to see Detroit, and that’s for the fearsome foursome of Arrington, Barford, Anderson and Metcalf. It’s just too bad they don’t have more to do.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

A scene from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Detroit by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

        
        

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Jeff Awards announced for 2008-2009 season

PRODUCTION — PLAY – LARGE
Ruined Goodman Theatre and Manhattan Theatre Club
The SeafarerSteppenwolf Theatre 

PRODUCTION — PLAY – MIDSIZE
The History Boys TimeLine Theatre 

PRODUCTION — MUSICAL – LARGE
Caroline, or Change Court Theatre

PRODUCTION — MUSICAL – MIDSIZE
Tomorrow Morning – Hilary A. Williams, LLC

PRODUCTION — REVUE
Studs Terkel’s Not Working The Second City e.t.c.

ENSEMBLE
The History BoysTimeLine Theatre 

NEW WORK — PLAY
Lynn NottageRuined Goodman Theatre and Manhattan Theatre Club

NEW ADAPTATION — PLAY
Seth BockleyJonCollaboraction

NEW WORK OR ADAPTATION – MUSICAL
Josh Schmidt, Jan Tranen & Austin PendletonA Minister’s Wife Writers’ Theatre 

DIRECTOR – PLAY
Nick BowlingThe History BoysTimeLine Theatre

DIRECTOR – MUSICAL
Charles NewellCaroline, or Change Court Theatre

DIRECTOR — REVUE
Matt HovdeStuds Terkel’s Not WorkingThe Second City e.t.c.

ACTOR IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE — PLAY
Larry Neumann, Jr. – A Moon for the MisbegottenFirst Folio Theatre
William L. PetersenBlackbirdVictory Gardens Theatre 

ACTOR IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE — MUSICAL
Joseph Anthony ForondaMiss Saigon Drury Lane Oakbrook

ACTRESS IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE – PLAY
Saidah Arrika EkulonaRuinedGoodman Theatre and Manhattan Theatre Club

ACTRESS IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE — MUSICAL
E. Faye ButlerCaroline, or Change Court Theatre

SOLO PERFORMANCE
Max McLeanMark’s GospelFellowship for the Performing Arts

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE — PLAY
Alex WeismanThe History Boys TimeLine Theatre

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE — MUSICAL
Max Quinlan – The Light in the PiazzaMarriott Theatre

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE — PLAY
Spencer KaydenDon’t Dress for Dinner – The British Stage Company

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE – MUSICAL
Liz Baltes – A Minister’s WifeWriters’ Theatre
Summer SmartThe Light in the Piazza Marriott Theatre

ACTOR IN A REVUE
Mark David KaplanForbidden Broadway: Dances with the StarsJohn Freedson, Harriet Yellin and Margaret Cotter

ACTRESS IN A REVUE
Amanda Blake DavisStuds Terkel’s Not WorkingThe Second City e.t.c.

SCENIC DESIGN – LARGE
Lucy OsborneTwelfth NightChicago Shakespeare Theater

SCENIC DESIGN – MIDSIZE
Brian Sidney BembridgeThe History Boys TimeLine Theatre

COSTUME DESIGN – LARGE
Mara BlumenfeldThe Arabian NightsLookingglass Theatre

COSTUME DESIGN — MIDSIZE
Rachel LaritzThe Voysey Inheritance Remy Bumppo Theatre

SOUND DESIGN – MIDSIZE
Lindsay JonesThe K of D: An Urban LegendRoute 66 Theatre

LIGHTING DESIGN — LARGE
Christopher AkerlindRock ‘n’ Roll Goodman Theatre

LIGHTING DESIGN — MIDSIZE
Jesse Klug – Hedwig and the Angry InchAmerican Theater Company

CHOREOGRAPHY
David H. BellThe Boys from Syracuse Drury Lane Oakbrook

ORIGINAL INCIDENTAL MUSIC
Dominic KanzaRuinedGoodman Theatre and Manhattan Theatre Club

MUSIC DIRECTION
Doug PeckCaroline, or Change Court Theatre

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT IN SPECIAL EFFECTS
Steve Tolin – Special Effects – The Lieutenant of Inishmore Northlight Theatre

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT IN VIDEO DESIGN
Mike Tutaj – Film & Video Design – Tomorrow Morning – Hillary A. Williams

Writers’ Theatre announces 2008/09 season

Writer’s Theatre 2008/09 Season

Nixon’s Nixon

By Russell Lees

Directed by Michael Halberstam

Featuring William Brown and Larry Yando

Just in time for the elections, we bring back our critically acclaimed, award-winning production of Nixon’s Nixon. This box office record-breaking production returns to our most intimate theatre for a limited engagement. Artistic Director Michael Halberstam will once again direct William Brown and Larry Yando as they reprise their tour-de-force performances as Kissinger and Nixon in this thrilling, hilarious and brilliantly imagined story of what might have happened in the Lincoln sitting room the night before Nixon resigned.

September 16 – November 16, 2008

 

 

Picnic

By William Inge

Directed by David Cromer

When a charismatic young drifter arrives in a small Kansas town on the eve of a Labor Day picnic, the simmering repressions of its residents come rapidly to a boil. Frequently hilarious and profoundly mo ing, Inge’s masterpiece chronicles the hopes and despairs that lie between the realization of adulthood and the eternal optimism of youth. This American classic is staged by Chicago’s own David Cromer, whose previous work for Writers’ Theatre includes The Price and Booth, and whose highly acclaimed production of The Adding Machine is enjoying a successful run in New York.

September 16 – November 16, 2008

 

 

The Maids

By Jean Genet

Translated by Martin Crimp

Directed by Jimmy McDermott

When the mistress is away, the maids will play. Two women in service to a younger socialite pass the moments of their day in play-acting and fantasy. As the line between fantasy and reality begins to disintegrate, their games take a deadly turn. Jealousy, resentment, sexual tension and murder converge in this 1947 classic French thriller. Jimmy McDermott, one of the city’s most exciting young directors, brings his trademark edginess to this seminally rebellious play.

November 18 , 2008 – April 5, 2009

 

 

A Christmas Carol

By Charles Dickens

Adapted & Performed by Michael Halberstam

Artistic Director Michael Halberstam masterfully recreates the greatest ghost story ever written with his tour-de-force solo performance of Ebenzer Scrooge’s journey over the course of one magical Christmas Eve. Now in its 13th season, this holiday tradition has been extended to nine performances after last year’s sold-out run.

December 13 – 23, 2008

 

 

 

 

World Premiere!!

Old Glory

By Brett Neveu

Directed by William Brown

William Brown, director of last season’s triumphant As You Like It, turns his attention from the old to the new. One of the country’s hottest young playwrights, Brett Neveu, brings us the world premiere of Old Glory.This gripping drama in which a family confronts loss as a conseqwuence of war is brought intensely to life through Neveu’s direct yet poetic language. No government, no politics, just people. Razor sharp wit and fiercely emotional confrontation combine as this viscerally powerful mystery unfolds.

February 3 – March 29, 2009

 

 

 

 

World Premiere Musical!!

A Minister’s Wife

Music by Josh Schmidt, Lyrics by Jan Tranen

Adapted by Austin Pendleton

Conceived & Directed by Michael Halberstam

After his unanimously acclaimed New York debut, The Adding Machine, Writers’ Theatre Associate Artist Josh Schmidt has become the most eagerly anticipated young musical theatre composer in the country. Schmidt’s second creation, in collaboration with artistic director Michael Halberstam, playwright Austin Pendleton and lyricist Jan Tranen, receives its world premiere in Glencoe. A poet, a preacher and his wife enter into a delicious conflict when a fantastical assumption turns an ordinary day topsy-turvy.

May 19 – July 19, 2009

For more information on Writers’ Theatre, call 847-242-6000, or go to www.writerstheatre.org.