‘Detroit’ questions the American Dream

The suburbs aren't what they used to be – but then, nowadays, what element of the American Dream still is?

That's the general idea in Lisa D'Amour's "Detroit," making its Houston premiere Friday at Catastrophic Theatre.

Set in "any first-ring suburb of a midsize city" (the title is metaphoric, not literal), the play depicts two couples whose get-together starts out ordinary but turns explosive. Ben and Mary, a couple weathering economic uncertainty (Ben has just lost his job as a bank loan officer), host a backyard barbecue to welcome their slightly younger new neighbors, Kenny and Sharon, fresh from rehab and trying to get their lives on track.

With Kenny and Sharon grasping for stability just as Ben and Mary are bridling at suburban routine, "Detroit" reflects on the uncertainty of the middle class, the modern definition of "neighbor," the Thoreauvian impulse to return to nature and the search for second chances.

"Detroit" premiered at Chicago's renowned Steppenwolf Theatre in 2010, made its New York debut at off-Broadway's prestigious Playwrights Horizons and won the 2013 Obie as best new American play. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, it also has played to acclaim at London's Royal National Theatre.

"A friendly suburban barbecue spirals into a delirious, dangerous bacchanal in the superb play 'Detroit,'" wrote the New York Times' Charles Isherwood. He went on to call the play "rich and addictively satisfying… a sharp X-ray of the embattled American psyche as well as a smart, tart critique of the country's fraying social fabric."

D'Amour has said "Detroit" was sparked by her brother Todd's customary icebreaker: "If you could have any other job than the job you have now, what would it be?" After the obvious initial replies (say, "a quarterback in the NFL"), more realistic reflection often unleashes meaningful insights. D'Amour wrote: "They start talking about the major they ditched in college because the course of study wasn't practical. Or the shelf of archaeology books they keep at home. Most often, people totally surprise you with their dream career, and their reasons for wanting it. Everyone has a secret self. A self they desperately want to be. A self they believe they will never get to be."

D'Amour grew up in New Orleans, received her master's in playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, and in the past decade or so, has become an admired figure in New York's alternative theater and performance scene.

Catastrophic Theatre and Infernal Bridegroom (essentially Catastrophic's predecessor, with many of the same key artists) have championed her work in Houston. In 2006, Infernal premiered D'Amour's "Hide Town," which she created for the company, sparked by her research into Texas ghost towns and tall tales. In 2011, Catastrophic gave the area premiere of her haunting "Anna Bella Eema," a ghost story for three voices exploring childhood fantasy and female identity.

Catastrophic mainstay Troy Schulze directs "Detroit," with a cast including Sara Jo Dunstan, Mischa Hutchings, Jeff Miller, George Parker and Jim Tommaney. Schulze was in Catastrophic's world premiere of "Hide Town" and worked with D'Amour during her residency here.

"I'm a big fan of her writing," Schulze says. "We've been waiting for the chance to do this play. One of the things I most appreciate in her work is that she is constantly changing. This play is completely different from her previous works produced here. It's more traditional in structure and narrative, not as poetic."

Schulze says part of the play's point is the disparity between our idea of the American Dream and the reality of American life today.

"Maybe people still envision that suburban existence we think of from the 1950s-60s, and assume realizing that would equal success and happiness. But it seems that ideal is disappearing, at least more difficult for most people to find. And if the reality has changed, then our perception has to change as to what is there and what is possible.

"Though the couples are at different points," Schulze adds, "they come to realize they are more alike than they thought. The play is about people discovering themselves and each other."

To the play's implicit query "Where are we going?", D'Amour finds no easy, clear-cut answers.

"A lot of the answer is that we don't know," Schulze says. "I think that's something most of us have experienced – that everything feels more uncertain today than it seems to have been for past generations."