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Detroit is a rousing performance of the neighbourly get-together gone wrong

By Brian Carroll on January 21, 2014

It happens a lot in our mobile society. New neighbours move in. Somebody invites them for drinks, or dinner, or brings a casserole, or flowers. Before you know it, kindred spirits find each other. Friendships form around common interests and activities. There’s usually some wine or beer or spirits involved. Some of these friendships last for years, decades even.
But what happens when an economic recession tightens the screws? The real Detroit has lost 2/3rds of its population. Tens of thousands of buildings stand abandoned. What does this do to the social fabric?
There is no such thing as society said Baroness Margaret Thatcher. What if she’s right?
The action takes place in a suburb of a city (that may or may not be Detroit), during a recession (does it matter which one?).
Ben and Mary have decided to be neighbourly and invite new next-door neighbours Sharon and Kenny over for dinner. The alarm bells go off early:
“We don’t have any friends.” says Ben.
“We met at the _____ Centre.”, says Sharon. “That’s a rehab centre for substance abuse,” says Mary.
But Sharon and Kenny can’t keep their story straight. Supposedly they’ve been together for only three months, but soon they’re telling stories about partying together years earlier.
Ben and Mary are doing little better. They’re keeping up appearances, but Ben’s been laid off from his job as a loan officer at a bank. He’s working on his new business website, but early evening finds him having his first(?) tipple when Mary comes home from her job. Mary, however, soon catches up to him and surpasses his alcohol consumption.
Stephanie Izsak; David Benedict Brown; Teri Loretto-Valentik; David Whiteley. Photo Credit: Plosive Productions.

Stephanie Izsak; David Benedict Brown; Teri Loretto-Valentik; David Whiteley. Photo Credit: Plosive Productions.

What makes these two couples kindred spirits is their inability to fit into the new social milieu. Ben loses his social network when he loses his job. Mary likes several drinks too many. Sharon and Kenny don’t know how to make friends now that they’ve stopped pumping their bodies full of illegal drugs.

This all sounds like a recipe for tragedy. Yet the audience (myself included) laughs heartily at the predicaments of these feckless couples. We know a train wreck is coming. But since we can’t wrest fate from the hands of playwright Lisa D’Amour, we allow ourselves to laugh at the antics of these social misfits.
It’s the sight gags that win over the audience. The text meanders between comedy and tragedy, but the visuals make the audience laugh, sometimes uncontrollably. In spite of having lost one income, Ben and Mary are trying to keep up appearances. But it’s a facade that begins to fall apart when their good-looking, but cheap, patio umbrella collapses, wounding Kenny. The inept reactions of all parties on stage brings gales of laughter from the audience.
Similarly, when Sharon breaks down and weeps uncontrollably, the inappropriate reactions of the others drives the audience, not to empathy, but to contagious and hearty laughter.
Timing is crucial to comedy. Director Chris Ralph has rehearsed his crew to knife-edge synchronization. This is particularly true of the scenes of overlapping dialogue. All seems chaos, but the lines and actions intersect at particular points. Those intersections would run afoul if the timing weren’t so tight.
Kudos to the four principal actors. These are some of the best performances I’ve seen from each of them.
I’m accustomed to David Benedict Brown giving some of the funniest performances on Ottawa stages (Comedy of Errors, Die Zombie Die, Hip-Hop Shakespeare). Here he not only chews the scenery as the doofus Kenny; he tears it apart, much to the delight of the audience.
I enjoyed Stephanie Izsak’s performance as Titania in a Company of Fools’ Midsummer Nights Dream. But her performance here comes across as a personal best. I doubt that she can make a career of playing drug addicts just out of rehab. But she shines in the role of Sharon, delivering malapropisms with finely rehearsed timing as well as several breathtaking rants. Splendid!
David Whiteley can be stiff on stage (which was fine for his socially inept doctor in The Vibrator Play). But Chris Ralph has evoked a fluid and physical performance from Whiteley as Ben that is one of the best I’ve seen from him.
Terry Loretto-Valentik’s Mary tries to control her world, alternating between attempts at sophistication (how do you pronounce basil?), and then reverting to escapist fantasies of the simpler life of her Girl Scout youth. When all else fails, she turns to drink. Loretto-Valentik is a VERY convincing drunk alternating between pathos and physical comedy.
Geoff Gruson, as Kenny’s uncle Frank, has the unenviable task of tying up the loose ends of the story in the play’s epilogue. He provides a solid, if somewhat stiff, foil to Ben and Mary’s reactions. But the script is working against him. Which recession is this? And how does it fit into the timelines of the story? To reveal more would be to give spoilers.
Besides, by this time, the audience is exhausted from laughter. Does it really matter?
All in all, a rousing performance that had the audience beaming on its way out of the theatre into the cold. Treat yourself to the warmth of laughter in the midst of January’s cold. And bring friends, especially ones who don’t get out much. They won’t see anything like this on Netflix.
They could use the laughs.
Detroit by (PL?-sive) Productions is playing at The Gladstone till February 1st. Tickets are Adult: $34, Senior (65+): $30, Student/Artist/Unwaged: $20.