Dysfunction in suburbia and the intrusion of the ‘dangerous’ working class into a traditionally middle class enclave are hardly new themes, but mined properly they can still be rich seams, both of drama and comedy. But Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit – originally staged at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and receiving its UK premiere care of director Austin Pendleton – trades too heavily in tired class stereotypes, so while it is sporadically amusing, it ultimately feels stilted and unconvincing.
Mary and Ben are a middle class couple feeling the sharp end of the recession: Ben (Stuart McQuarrie) has been made redundant and is focusing his energies on a nebulous plan to build a website; Mary (Justine Mitchell) maintains a shrill optimism that doesn’t quite mask the fact that she is increasingly seeking solace in alcohol. Both are glad of the distraction of their new neighbours, reformed addicts Kenny (Will Adamsdale) and Sharon (Clare Dunne), but, as is the way of these things, though the more off-beat couple introduce both freedom and excitement to their staid counterparts, they end up costing them more than they give.
The problems with the set up are myriad from the start, and exacerbated by some of the clumsiest staging I’ve seen in a long time. Some fussing over a garden umbrella provides a couple of laughs but once it’s erected, it obscures half the action: from my seat, at least, it meant I spent the first part of the show watching decapitated actors while trying to figure out what was going on behind the umbrella. Eventually the damn thing comes down, but the rest of the production is hampered by clumsy blocking, which makes for occasionally frustrating viewing.
It’s not helped by writing that is often clunky and trite; none of the characters feel real, instead they come across as a series of clichÃ©s strung together for effect. Mary and Ben’s respectable uptightness is predictably shaken by Kenny and Sharon’s freewheeling life-on-the-edge, and while D’Amour may be seeking to examine – and puncture – middle class mores, the result is surprisingly conservative. Don’t make friends with ex-junkies, people, they might be good for a lesbian snog or a trip to a strip club (how liberating!) but they’ll only cause you trouble in the end. The utterly unnecessary coda, where a weary old-timer (Christian Rodska) is wheeled out to reveal the truth about the younger couple only reinforces this, and adds nothing to the piece.
The cast, in fairness, do well with what they are given: both Adamsdale and Dunne capture the believable vulnerability of people hanging onto life by their fingernails, while McQuarrie nicely hints at the turmoil behind Ben’s affable exterior, and Mitchell’s desperate housewife was convincing, if irritating.
At nearly two hours long (without an interval), the play feels stretched, and this isn’t helped by a drunken party scene that massively outstays its welcome. (It’s notoriously hard to play drunk convincingly, and having Sharon get frisky with both Ben and Mary merely came across as lazy sensationalism). There are some smart lines and funny moments, but a more rigorous edit would have brought them into sharper relief. As it stands, the play feels like a slightly pointless re-treading of already well-worn ground.