Catastrophic Theatre’s Detroit

I’m not sure why Lisa D’Amour’s play currently on view in Houston is called Detroit, since I don’t think I heard the troubled Michigan city mentioned once during the 90-minute, no-intermission production. But thanks to a super cast fielded by Catastrophic Theatre, you won’t miss knowing what the title means, says or refers to. The show is funny and entertaining, riveting enough to keep your eyes from wandering, and at least a little thought-provoking after the non-curtain has gone non-down.

D’Amour takes us into two backyards in someplace that, of course, might be Detroit – there is a definite sense of economic hard times but, I think, more like the hard times suffered almost everywhere during  the Recession rather than in a city with lasting financial woes and bankruptcy lurking at every turn. These financial troubles serve as a kind of metaphor for lives lived in “quiet desperation,” until the desperation gets loud (and X-rated) indeed. This is, obviously, some effort to show the dark side of the American Dream, since much of the content involves houses, furniture, backyards, lawns, decks and barbecue pits. These people should be happy, we’d be tempted to say, watching them laugh and cook and eventually dance in the sunshine – except we sense they’re not.

Two couples living next door meet casually, noting that neighbors never meet anymore. Mary (played by Mischa Hutchings) and Ben (Jeff Miller) look more normal, though maybe a tad too all-American in their smiles and alcohol consumption, with her working a real job so the recently laid-off Ben can start a home-based financial business that requires nothing more than a presence on the Internet. Sara Jo Dunstan and George Parker play a stranger – and more strangely lovable – couple, though they reveal they’re actually squatting in an empty house owned by a relative because they just got out of drug rehab, where they either did or didn’t first meet. We sense shadows haunting each couple, not to mention each of the four as individuals.

Things are not at all what they seem, even as much of the time in the play is spent having fun, concocting short- or long-term schemes, and dreaming dreams. An old relative (evocatively played by Jim Tommaney) turns up near the end, after the disaster, to remind Mary and Ben how nice the neighborhood used to be – and probably, by suggestion, how nice human existence used to be, though we, as usual, don’t know when.

This is not a new narrative or a new message – I think of American short stories by Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others from the 1920s (before the Crash), and of course Death of a Salesman and other Arthur Miller plays, in which we watch a decent guy naïve enough to believe the promises America has made him slowly stripped of his last illusion. Here, however, there is nothing so certain or doctrinaire, nothing so Greek. Thanks to spirited direction by Troy Schulze and evocative design by Kevin Holden, what we have is a wild and wildly entertaining ride that just might haunt the corners of our minds the next time we think things are going so well.