Detroit – Who are our neighbours and how do we speak to them? (Theatre review)

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Darlinghurst Theatre Company

17 July – 16 August You can grab your tickets here

Images my Gez Xavier Mansfield

Seeing Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit performed in 2015 in a city that is so affluent our major concern is how every citizen can afford to buy a house and realise the dream of the outdoor room, calls forth some of the plays more philosophical undertones which doesn’t hurt it a bit. In the middle of this decade in Sydney, being laid off your banking job and staying home with your computer and some self-help books does lead to financial security, so the deconstructed angst of a crumbling city as backdrop to economic uncertainty is less accessible than the more subtle points of Detroit – such as cultural dependency on self medication and the difficulties we have relating to one another, even when circumstances conspire to bring us together. Mary, Ben, Sharon and Kenny are all different people, from different parts of America, strangely tossed into the difficulties plaguing Detroit together, yet as their accents reveal, their superficial differences are what keep them separate. This unintended geographic barrier is something Sydney folk understand, not only due to our distance from the rest of the world, but in the distancing from each other Australian’s evoke through physical space and territorial attitudes. When Sharon cries at the first backyard BBQ, partially from the beauty of connection, and partially from an inability to successfully convey her message to the others, it is a sense of connection to a moment that we all understand to be profound, and yet obliterate with the first yawn and bitch to our significant other when we finally get home.


In this way Detroit has shades of John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation. Like that other great play, economic uncertainty teases at the edge of cultural civility within Detroit, and through unusual circumstances perpetually aided by middle class social values, one couple find themselves face to face with a level of society from which their wealth was intended to separate. Just as Ousia Kittredge cries out to rescue the experience from the anecdote, Mary and Ben will be forced into a confrontation with the very real results of the fantastical day dreams about escaping suburban drudgery. If Detroit takes its surface level observations from the relationship between economic decay and social behaviours, it also speaks about the lust in our eye as we peer at our neighbours greener grass, and the endless compelling nature of the choice from which we turned away. A lust perpetually shrouded in an inadequate language, destined to be misunderstood forever.

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Mary (Lisa Chappell) and Ben (Ed Wightman) are in a bit of an economic muddle. Ben’s been laid off his job as a loan officer at the bank and Mary, who is a paralegal, is currently the only breadwinner. Things aren’t too bad, they own their home and they “haven’t had to dip into their savings yet” but the stresses are starting to show as Ben spends all his time working on a website that is intended to launch his career offering financial advice (not a well thought out business idea in a decaying city). Sharon (Claire Lovering) and Kenny (James O’Connell) are a younger couple living next door, supposedly renting the house from Kenny’s uncle. Sharon works in a telemarketing office and Kenny works as a labourer in a warehouse, but it is soon obvious the younger couple have no money, no prospects and are recovering substance abusers trying to connect to a world of self direction, goals and fulfilled plans. The association between the four forms the bulk of the play, inevitably rising to the sort of crescendo the self-destructive Sharon and Kenny live by. But far more interesting is the lure of their strange life for Mary and Ben, who are partially seeking a more troubled couple to look down upon, and partially seeking a new life and a fresh perspective. While Sharon and Kenny admire the middle class stability of their neighbours (at one hilarious point, Mary produces a coffee table as a gift to the young couple with no furniture) particularly fascinating is the attraction to the impulsive pleasure-seeking lifestyle that Sharon and Kenny can’t help but embody. “You’ve got to live this moment, Mary,” Sharon says at one point. “That’s all you can do.”

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But Detroit in Sydney in 2015 is not just a great play, it’s a great production, with very intelligent direction from Ross McGregor who pulls equally intelligent performances from his talented cast. Lisa Chappell is a fraught and hilarious Mary, perpetually teetering between abandonment and responsibility, and yet pulsing with a longing that endears her to the audience as we wrestle with the barbs and jabs that protect her. Claire Lovering brings a depth to Sharon that grounds her comical and seemingly bizarre comments in a social awkwardness that struggles with articulation. It was Chappell and Lovering’s performances that brought home the overwhelming sense of the inadequacies of language that Lisa D’Amour writes so well, as both performances reveal intelligent trapped women kicking their way to a choppy surface with no hope of rescue. The men are equally strong with James O’Connell bringing a slight aggression to his role as Kenny (another character wrestling with an inner self) and Ed Wightman whose Ben constantly threatens to topple over into full-blown depression. Finally Ronald Falk steps in (no spoilers) as Frank, the voice of the past and the shadow of a certain future, who ties up many of the economic and social themes of Detroit with his appearance.

A final word about the very effective set and the remarkable lighting. Tobhiyah Stone Feller creates a wonderful revolving platform upon which the various images of backyards and front porches exist with their voyeuristic glimpses of the dwellings within, that gives the audience the impression they are both welcomed guest and uninvited interloper at these small gatherings. It’s impossible to describe Ben Brockman’s lighting without giving away the play’s important finale; suffice to say the beautiful and dramatic work is worth the price of the ticket alone. Attention to detail, precision and a passion for taking an additional past the expected are always the hallmarks of Ben Brockman’s lighting, and in Detroit he finds new inspiration to achieve something remarkable to see.

Detroit is one of the best things I’ve seen at the Darlinghurst Theatre, and a play not to be missed in 2015.

Highly recommended.