I would never have called “Detroit” a clusterf**k had I known its star stood behind me. Laurie Metcalf, most famous for her nine-year stint as Jackie on "Roseanne," has been a Steppenwolf ensemble member since 1976. Although a walloping stage presence, in person Metcalf looks like any other Chicagoan, or at least any incredibly petite Chicagoan with perfectly formed knees.
A show full of discomfort-building lulls and lines delivered with sitcom punch, “Detroit” tells the story of mismatched neighbors, each a husband and wife pair. Metcalf and Ian Barford as longtime residents Mary and Ben, grapple with a post-economic downturn existence: Ben laid-off and Mary drinking too much as she shoulders the bread-winning burden. As the show opens, the couple barbeque with oddball neighbors, Kenny (Kevin Anderson) and Sharon (Kate Arrington). The duo claim to be just out of rehab, renting a relative’s home, but as the unlikely foursome grows closer, the new couple's tale loses purchase; perhaps they aren’t what they seem. Playwright Lisa D’Amour wrote "Detroit" to examine “how our priorities shift in times of financial stress, when we don't have the mirage of financial stability to hide inside.” Another inspiration? The question of “what happens when the unknown moves in next door to you. Do you shut yourself away, or do you open up and let it change you?”
While the play's route to addressing this issue becomes, over the show’s course, littered with broad physical comedy and superficial pokes at impactful issues, D’Amour’s characters shine, undeniably unique and memorable. It was this element that attracted director Austin Pendelton. Says Pendleton, “Fully alive, not just ciphers reflective of some point the playwright wants to make, [the characters] came out of Lisa and began to race around the track, and I thought, I want to get in there.” Although D’Amour did not write Mary with Metcalf in mind, she says the actress “helped me discover [Mary’s] sharp edges. We still like Mary, even when she is being pushy or a little crazy; that’s the genius of Laurie Metcalf. She manages to wrap the ugly and the pretty all up into one fascinating package.”
Despite Metcalf’s undeniable expertise, there’s something off-kilter about the show and I wonder whether Pendleton’s reasonable desire to lay bare “the sharp and painful absurdity of [how] people live in this crumbling America,” is the cause. Striving to demonstrate “the crazy way these particular people are coping,” may have provoked the inclusion of extraneous slapstick humor, which seem at odds with "Detroit’s" darker themes. Case in point, Kenny and Sharon’s fall from the wagon is heralded by a prolonged sequence of drunken antics, tasteless given what it portends. While comedy is useful in bringing dark issues to light, verbal humor may be more apt in such an instance; physical seems to downplay the gravity of addiction, a serious issue.
Audience reaction to "Detroit" varied the night I attended. While the couple seated behind me scrabbled wildly for their car keys not sixty minutes in, at the play’s end, many stood to applaud. As for me, I’m pretty sure Walt Whitman was taking notes on my post-show inner monologue when he wrote about containing vast multitudes and having sex in the grass or whatever, because leaving the theater, my thoughts jigged and kicked, unwilling to collect. Thus, when asked my take on the show, I answered, while behind me, Metcalf, wearing track pants and capturing her hair with a jaw clip, slipped through the theater’s main entrance, not ten minutes after the curtain fell.
Here’s hoping she understands the parade of half-formed thoughts a complex show elicits, or that she’s hard of hearing, either is fine with me.
Detroit runs through November 7. For tickets visit www.steppenwolf.org