Although the streets of “Detroit” aren’t paved with gold, once upon a time, the Motor City roared with industry and music. Now, the city’s bankrupt and the records skip — scratched by the ugly claws of anxiety and anger.
Written by Lisa D’Amour and directed by Anne Marie Cummings, the founder and artistic director of the Readers’ Theatre of Ithaca, the 90-minute dark comedy “Detroit” shows how the economic recession chewed up the Horatio Alger myth.
As Ben (AJ Sage) and Mary (Effie Johnson) get to know their new neighbors, Kenny (Gary Weissbrot) and Sharon (Camilla Schade), through a series of backyard barbeques, we see a tangible desperation.
Mary’s frazzled as she tries too hard to impress the older couple, Kenny and Sharon. She struggles to open a patio umbrella and to fit a coffee table through a door. From the audience’s vantage point, Johnson appears to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown as she handles the invisible props.
Meanwhile, her husband Ben, a self-proclaimed deadbeat, lost his banking job and decides to start his own online credit consulting business. It’s not doing so well. He’s still working on the website.
“I think we all know some older people who had a hard time with the economic downturn because jobs are harder to find,” Cummings said. “So I thought it was an important element to show in this play.”
Although D’Amour’s Obie Award-winning production was grounded in reality and inspired by the 2009 recession, “Detroit” holds many surrealist elements. Sharon remembers a dream where Ben grows younger and younger until he’s finally a baby. Mary repeats, “This is weird.”
“It starts with a dream,” said Cummings. “It ends with a dream. There’s a dream in the beginning. Mary says, ‘This is not a dream.’ And I think that’s the undercurrent emotion underneath the whole period of time.”
This dreamlike buoyancy is reinforced in D’Amour’s script. “Detroit” takes place on any corner of suburbia, along the “city of lights.” The streets are named Rainbow, Helium, Ultraviolet, and Sunshine. In fact, their entire neighborhood is named for its levity.
“Even the setting is giving a sort of ethereal nature with the Feather Boulevards and the bright houses,” said Sage. “It seems to be a more idyllic place than ever actually existed in the world.”
Like the streets and houses, the American dream is misleading. Immigrants flocking to see streets paved with gold only found that they were they were the ones to pave them. D’Amour’s haunting script reinforces this broken dream.
This gilded image hides the cavities and tumors within the rotting city. Sharon and Kenny admit they are “white trash” (Sharon’s works at a phone bank; Kenny in a warehouse). But they want something more. “I’m 55 years old and I’m still eating ramen noodles for dinner a lot,” says Sharon.
They all aren’t where they imagined. Mary, a paralegal by day, self medicates with alcohol and dreams of camping.
Ben falls through a deck and breaks his leg.
Cummings places the play in the realm of Samuel Beckett, Edward Albee and the theatre of the absurd.
“Unlike a modern play like ‘God of Carnage’ by Yasmina Reza,” Cummings said, “these couples for the most part aren’t hiding truths from one another and what connects them are their loneliness in a world where communication isn’t what it used to be.”
Cummings breaks down space and communication further by breaking the forth wall. Johnson, Sage, Schade and Weissbrot face the audience rather than each other.
“You have to use your ears and imagine the other person’s face,” said Sage.
“Detroit” is very lyrical, moving between dream and reality — stationary repetitious movement and dance. At one point, Schade and Weissbrot sway in place as Johnson and Sage converse. At another point, Johnson and Schade are running in place at one side of the stage as Sage and Weissbrot tango in another. The rhythm of Johnson and Schade’s stomping quickens, creating a pounding desperation.
And before you know it, the record’s over.
“Detroit” was written by Lisa D’Amour and directed by Anne Marie Cummings, starring AJ Sage, Effie Johnson, Camilla Schade and Gary Weissbrot. Assistant director Chris Dell narrates the play; with music by Hank Roberts. A staged reading will be performed from May 2-4 at Cinemapolis on 120 East Green Street in Ithaca, N.Y.
Tickets can be purchased at www.thereaderstheatre.com. Advance tickets are $10 for students and $12 for adults. Tickets will be $12 for students (with student ID) and $15 for adults at the door. “Detroit” is the last play in the Readers’ Theatre’s 2013-2014 season.