Droll ‘Detroit’ a worthy dark comedy

From Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" to Will Eno's "The Realistic Joneses," marital mixed doubles have afforded rich theatrical sport.

Two couples – usually one more established, the other younger or new to the particular environment – meet, hang out, and get to know each other's secrets and troubles. The changing dynamics within and between the couples make the play.

Lisa D'Amour's dark comedy "Detroit," properly droll and disturbing in Catastrophic Theatre's Houston premiere, is a worthy addition to the canon.

The Obie-winning "Detroit" is as much about the endangered middle class, the fading dream of a secure, satisfying suburban paradise, as it is about the two couples. But D'Amour's quirky characters and their recognizably human foibles are interesting in their own right.

Ben and Mary are the longtime residents who welcome new neighbors Kenny and Sharon for a backyard barbecue. The getting acquainted continues through various encounters in the days and weeks that follow. Ben has recently lost his job as a bank loan officer, but is establishing his own online business as a financial planning consultant. Mary is simultaneously supportive and tense about the prospect.

Kenny and Sharon reveal they met in rehab and are recovering from substance abuse and striving to stay clean. For now, Kenny stocks shelves in a warehouse and Sharon works at a phone bank, while they rent the house left vacant after the recent death of Kenny's aunt. Mary scans Kenny and Sharon's house five weeks after their arrival and is appalled they are still living with almost no furniture – one of several questionable, possibly ominous factors in the couple's existence.

The foursome experiences its share of bonding, surprises, personal setbacks and sudden hostilities in all directions. Deciding to return to nature, the two wives set out on a camping expedition, while Kenny convinces Ben their best response is a boys' night out at a strip club. When things don't work out as planned, all regroup in Ben and Mary's backyard and fall into a sort of impromptu primal revel that serves as the play's climax.

The play's coda introduces a new character, a venerable elder named Frank, who recalls the idyllic life of the neighborhood 50 years earlier, when it was new. D'Amour's efforts to articulate a grand statement about what's gone out of American life in the past 50 years may not always hit the bull's-eye, but this crucial final speech certainly achieves the right elegiac quality.

Though "Detroit" covers familiar thematic terrain, D'Amour adds enough that is fresh, unexpected or reliably funny to make it worthwhile. Petty aggravations (the patio umbrella that won't stay open, the recalcitrant sliding door) pile up until they become maddening – shades of Neil Simon's "Prisoner of Second Avenue."

D'Amour has a fine way with the ironically telling line or detail, as when Mary's gift of a coffee table to the newcomers is accompanied by her admission, "I hate this coffee table." The serious turns also ring true, as when Sharon confesses to Mary she's slipped off the wagon. We know things will keep getting worse, we just don't know how and how much. D'Amour keeps enough going wrong at every turn to make "Detroit" seem just like real life.

Troy Schulze has directed with genuine feeling for the mordant humor in D'Amour's writing. Both his staging and the cast make good use of the script's subtle seesawing between sardonic deadpan and hysterical frustration.

Jeff Miller's Ben convinces as the staunch yet wearying suburban Everyman, with bursts of overenthusiastic bravado. We recognize his efforts to sound glibly knowing about certain things because he's supposed to be, but never quite hiding the insecurity underneath. Mischa Hutchings makes Mary believably taut and troubled, beneath her smooth, polite exterior. Part of the play's poignancy is seeing these two dutifully striving to act the model couple for the young newcomers.

George Parker plays Kenny as a genial mix of laid-back, frazzled, puzzled and simply out-of-it. Sara Jo Dunstan is funny and sweet as ditsy, good-hearted Sharon, who every now and then makes better sense than anyone else. Parker and Dunstan's teamwork conveys a sense of on-their-own-wavelength connection.

Jim Tommaney strikes an appropriately wintry, rueful note in his scene as Frank.

Kevin Holden has done a bang-up job on the revolving set, depicting the backyards of both couples' houses in great detail, including fairly substantial changes in the course of the action.

If not the last word in defining contemporary suburban malaise, "Detroit" combines humor and keen perception to resonant effect.