Kenny, Mary, Sharon, and Ben (l-r, Patrick Kelly Jones*, Amy Resnick*, Luisa Frasconi, Jeff Garrett*) have a wild backyard barbeque in Aurora’s Bay Area Premiere of Detroit
Kenny, Mary, Sharon, and Ben (l-r, Patrick Kelly Jones, Amy Resnick, Luisa Frasconi, Jeff Garrett) have a wild backyard barbecue in Aurora’s Bay Area premiere of Detroit. Photo: David Allen

The fiery dark comedy, Detroit, written by Lisa D’Amour, richly deserves the Obie Award it won in 2013 for the Best New American Play. When it first opened in Chicago at the Steppenwolf Theatre in 2010, the U.S. was floundering through the sudden and severe recession that turned people’s lives inside out. Detroit adroitly captures those angst-filled times and weightier concerns, yet has plenty of humor and satire that lessens the pall. It is also an exploration into the dream or mirage of the American middle class life.

Mary (Amy Resnick (Body Awareness, Collapse) and Ben (Jeff Garrett, QED, Berkeley City Club, Assassins, Shotgun) live in a post-World War II close-in suburb near an unnamed city. Mary is a paralegal, but is more interested in shopping online than doing her work. Ben has been laid off from his job as a bank loan officer, but has big plans to start an online site to help those in debt. And he surfs motivational websites. Perhaps he still has a shot at the American Dream.

Sharon (c. Luisa Frasconi) serves appetizers to neighbors Mary (l, Amy Resnick*) and Ben (r, Jeff Garrett*) as Kenny (back, Patrick Kelly Jones*) mans the hibachi in Aurora’s Bay Area Premiere of Detroit.  Photo: David Allen
Sharon (c. Luisa Frasconi) serves appetizers to neighbors Mary (l, Amy Resnick) and Ben (r, Jeff Garrett) as Kenny (back, Patrick Kelly Jones) mans the hibachi in Detroit. Photo: David Allen

In a rare spark of friendliness, Mary and Ben invite their new, younger neighbors for a summer barbecue. Sharon (Luisa Frasconi, Romeo and Juliet, Marin Shakespeare) and Kenny (Patrick Kelly Jones, Metamorphosis) have moved right next door in an unfurnished house that they are renting from a dead relative’s estate.

Mary and Ben are shocked to find out that Sharon and Kenny met at a drug rehab center and are dead broke. Kenny works at a warehouse and Sharon takes calls at a phone bank. Packaged Ramen noodles are a diet staple. Clearly, to Mary and Ben, their new neighbors are a glimpse over the precipice.

As the couples share more barbecues and commiserate together, their conversations seem to revert to Mary’s and Ben’s middle-class values and the younger couple’s avowed practice of living in the moment. Ben counsels Kenny to improve his credit score, yet the necessary year-long wait is unimaginable to Kenny. And, gradually, the freedom of “nothing left to lose” becomes enticing to Mary and Ben, as the two couples let loose in a bacchanalian dance, although, for me, the dance extended a bit too long.

Josh Costello’s direction keeps Detroit taut and tender. All four actors give first-class performances. I was particularly taken with Jeff Garrett, whose portrayal of Ben is greatly enhanced by his myriad exaggerated facial features and appropriately gangling physicality.

Playwright Lisa D’Amour (Anna Bella Eema, Airline Highway) has the adroitness to convey abstract ideas through her use of stage props. When the older couple’s outdoor umbrella doesn’t work and the sliding back door sticks, we perceive that they are in a precarious economic and emotional state. When Mary needs to wear a special shoe and Ben sports a foot cast, they seem weighed down by the middle-class hopes and values that no longer work for them. Perhaps the author’s other life as an award-winning performance artist makes these accompaniments natural to her, but, to us, they are delightful nuances.

The surprise ending to this one-act, 90-minute funny and philosophic play will leave the audience thinking about their own lives, aspirations and values.

Detroit runs through July 19. For information, tickets and extended performance dates, visit Aurora Theater’s website.

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Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...