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. Lightness, too: There's Feather Boulevard, Helium Street, Weightless Avenue. But this suburb, built in the postwar housing boom and filled with prefab homes, is no longer the luminous, buoyant 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: a mortgage, patio furniture from the discount depot, heirloom tomatoes from Whole Foods. Sharon and Kenny, meanwhile, are recovering addicts who claim to be living next door with a relative's permission, yet they have no furniture save bedsheets on the windows and a mattress on the floor. Strange times make for strange bedfellows, and these two couples strike up a friendship over grilled steak and, later, too much PBR.
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) as she nervously sets out the "white trash appetizers." But the choppy, episodic narrative has to work overtime to keep the audience engaged—we're ejected from the action as soon as it turns intriguing, and the blackouts between scenes come often and last too long.
But the bigger problem with this production, helmed by Portland Playhouse artistic director Brian Weaver, 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. The two actors perform at a consistently high pitch, rarely dialing back to let the play breathe. At one point, Totman's character details her frustrations with an exaggerated girlishness that overpowers her words and saps them of feeling. Tallent, too, 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.
SEE IT: Detroit is at Portland Playhouse, 602 NE Prescott St., 488-5822. 7:30 pm Wednesdays-Saturdays and 2 pm Sundays through Nov. 3. $27.75-$38.75.