The streets in the unnamed suburb of Detroit
—which is not necessarily set anywhere near the Motor City—evoke light. Ultraviolet Lane. Fluorescent Avenue. Sunshine Way. But this suburb, built in the postwar housing boom and filled with prefab homes, is no longer the luminous place of its original inhabitants’ fantasies. Detroit
is set in 2009, and the four central characters occupy a world of foreclosures, layoffs and fractured dreams. It’s a world that should be familiar to us, but in this Portland Playhouse production, it feels both alien and alienating. Lisa D’Amour’s Pulitzer-nominated play centers on two couples: Mary and Ben enjoy the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle, while Sharon and Kenny are recovering addicts. Unfolding over two acts, the play’s vignettes make for a fractured structure. At its best, the dialogue buzzes with an offbeat poetry that echoes this sense of fracture. “Cheetos are always the first thing to go at a party, even when they’re next to the brie,” says Sharon (Kelly Tallent). But the choppy, episodic narrative has to work overtime to keep the audience engaged. The bigger problem, though, with this Portland Playhouse production, is its inability to resolve warring senses of slapstick and pathos. The characters spend more time bonking their heads, crashing through porches and vomiting on each other than they do exposing or salving their wounds. Tallent and Brooke Totman (who plays the middle-class wife) opt for caricaturish portrayals that grate for the wrong reasons—they’re uncomfortable not because they niggle at something true, but because they’re forced. Tallent plays her role like an overgrown child, all graceless flailing and squeaky voice. It’s an interesting choice: There’s a case to be made that these characters are essentially children, thrashing about in a dangerous new world and scrambling for survival strategies. But in practice, it’s just distracting, and Detroit
comes up cold.
602 NE Prescott St.Website: http://portlandplayhouse.org/frontpage/front-page