Hard times hit the American Dream in Zoetic Stage’s ‘Detroit’

The play is titled Detroit, but as Lisa D’Amour notes in her script, the setting is “not necessarily Detroit.” The story could happen in any suburb just outside a mid-sized city. Anywhere and everywhere in an economically crushed America, where opportunity seems like a distant memory.

Miami’s Zoetic Stage kicks off its season in the Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio at 7:30 p.m. Friday with Detroit, first in a three-show lineup of plays with one-word titles (the others are Paul Weitz’s Trust in March and Harold Pinter’s Betrayal in May).

Artistic director Stuart Meltzer chose Detroit, he says, “because I was frightened of its technical challenges, and that’s my m.o. I thought it was something the South Florida audience could relate to — this volatile tornado onstage. … There’s not a lot of plot, but it’s very funny, wicked and dangerous.”

D’Amour’s play, which was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in drama, centers around two couples who forge a friendship that leads to one wild, disastrous night.

Ben (Chaz Mena), laid off from his job as a bank loan officer, intends to launch a financial planning business. His wife Mary (Irene Adjan) keeps food and booze on the table by working as a paralegal. Their new younger neighbors, Kenny (Matt Stabile) and his wife Sharon (Betsy Graver), are fresh out of the rehab where they met, working subsistence jobs and living in a relative’s empty house next door.

The playwright, speaking by phone from Chicago where her new play Airline Highway will have its world premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre (where Detroit debuted in 2010) in December, says she deliberately built variables into her script.
“Some productions make all the characters the same age. In others, you have an older couple [Mary and Ben] and a younger one [Sharon and Kenny]. In that case, there’s more room for Sharon to see Mary as a mother figure,” says D’Amour, who has seen six different takes on her much-produced play.

Throughout the script, the playwright makes suggestions about actions, reactions and the like via her stage directions. But many are just that: suggestions that leave room for the creative decisions of directors and actors.

“I leave room for interpretation. I’ve been writing plays for awhile, and it keeps the process more playful,” says D’Amour, who has done lots of interdisciplinary, experimental, site-specific work as half of the duo PearlDamourCQ (with Katie Pearl).

“There’s a dance of uncertainty in Detroit. That makes it alive. It creates an adrenalin-filled tension.”

The actors in Zoetic’s cast, which also includes David Kwait in a small role near the end of the play, have felt encouraged by the script and Meltzer to bring their own creative ideas to the rehearsal process. All are sure that Detroit will resonate just as much in Miami as it has elsewhere.

“There’s an argument that all American plays are about the American Dream. This is a modern take on it,” says Stabile. “We all want that American Dream — the house, the car, etc. But a phrase to live by is: Don’t try to be happier than happy. There’s a push to want more. You feel this need to keep up.”

Graver sees the dark side of that dream in the script.

“We were all taught that the American Dream is achievable. But what do you do when the dream fails you, when you have to pick up the pieces of your life and carry on?” she asks. “Sharon is a challenging character to play. There’s so much going on underneath. She’s a lost soul trying to fight her way out of the hole she’s in. But she doesn’t have the skill set.”

Adjan, a Carbonell Award winner whose next three roles are in big musicals (Mame at the Wick Theatre in Boca Raton, Ragtime at Actors Playhouse in Coral Gables and Les Misérables at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre), sees Detroit as “a theme and idea play more than an action and story play. People fill in the blanks with their own history and experiences.”

Mena, also a Carbonell-winning actor, read the book Detroit: An American Autopsy by journalist Charlie LeDuff before starting rehearsals.

”I’m intellectually curious,” he explains, adding, “It’s about urban and suburban dismemberment. He says Detroit is a third-world city minus the goats.”

Though the setting of the play is more ambiguous, Mena believes the issues D’Amour’s script explores are all too real. As in: What happens when the American Dream goes up in flames?

“We’re all facing coming out of particularly dire times. It’s rare to be able to afford college and buy a home,” he says. “We now realize that what we are cannot be linked to what we own. Our consumer society has to come to an end.”

So with that creative wiggle room she left in the script, why did D’Amour call her play Detroit?

“When I started writing it, I thought of the play as a fable. The title popped into my head about halfway through,” says D’Amour, who is from New Orleans. “I chose Detroit as an outsider, because of how it resonates in the American imagination.”

Detroit, which has shifted D’Amour’s playwriting career into high gear and brought her mainstream success, was written before its namesake went bankrupt, when economic recovery seemed just around the corner. Once, she thought her play might become irrelevant.

That hasn’t happened.

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