Detroit Credit: Michael Brosilow

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit isn’t set in Detroit. It’s set amid a cluster of manicured suburban starter homes in Anywhere, U.S.A.—the antithesis of the abandoned urban landscape Detroit has come to represent. None of the characters ever refers to Detroit, either literally or metaphorically. “In my mind, the title Detroit could certainly mean Detroit,” the playwright says unhelpfully in an interview contained in the program, “but I think this neighborhood could also exist on the edges of many other cities in the U.S.” So what’s the title got to do with anything? Your guess is as good as mine.

The disconnect is emblematic of the play’s fundamental problem: D’Amour doesn’t know what Detroit‘s about. But if she’d paid attention to the trajectory she sets in her own first two scenes, she might’ve figured it out and written a hell of a show.

Receiving its world premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre under Austin Pendleton’s meticulous direction, Detroit unfolds in the adjoining backyards of two homes. Mary and Ben, a married couple struggling to escape their middle-class doldrums, live in one house. Mary is a paralegal with no real interest in her work. Ben is unemployed but hopes to launch his own financial planning business after reading a how-to book and building a website. Sharon and Kenny just moved in next door without a stick of furniture. They’ve spent the last few months in rehab, they explain, and Kenny’s uncle, who owns the house, is letting them stay there until they get their lives together.

D’Amour crafts sly comedy from a string of conversational banalities while honing an edge of menace, part of which derives from a classist subtext: Sharon and Kenny perceive Mary and Ben’s exuberant, fake civility as unprecedented neighborliness and eat it up, but Mary and Ben see their new neighbors, with their trashy clothing, poor grooming, and lack of social graces, as members of the underclass, and the playwright clearly expects us to share their wariness. D’Amour also slips booby traps into her suburban Eden. The patio umbrella closes violently on Kenny just before dinner is served, and he’s left to sit down to a nice meal with a bloody head wound.

It would seem D’Amour is aiming for dark—well, darkish—comedy about representatives of different social classes forced into uncomfortable proximity. But her extraordinary second scene blows everything wide open.

Mary shows up at Sharon’s back door in the middle of the night—disheveled, drunk, and extremely agitated—to unleash a vitriolic torrent of recriminations against her deadbeat husband and dead-end life. In Laurie Metcalf’s brutal performance, she appears to be on the verge of literal collapse, as though years of repressed fury have shattered her bones and left her barely able to stand. It’s a horrifying display. Kate Arrington’s Sharon listens to Mary’s rant and calmly asks her if she’s ever sought help for her drinking problem—and in that instant transforms from the sketchy Other into a repository of hard-won wisdom.

Mary’s response is to spew a vulgarity-laced tirade and her dinner at Sharon. By now Ben and Kenny have arrived, the disaster that is Mary’s life is public knowledge, and she’s alienated herself from anyone who might rescue her.

This would seem to be Mary’s decisive moment, bringing consequences that will change the trajectory of her life. But D’Amour immediately pulls her back from this thrilling dramatic precipice and sets her down at a relatively safe string of backyard meals. Issues that were hashed out in the first scene are rehashed at the expense of moving the play forward. D’Amour spends the rest of the 95-minute play fiddling with subjects that are interesting on paper—the isolation of suburban living, the need to strip away false social identities, the fear of proximate strangers—but fail to provide dramatic urgency. Even a massive fire comes across as hollow.

You can’t fault Pendleton’s sterling cast for Detroit‘s ultimate aimlessness. In fact, the ensemble’s laser-sharp performances make the production rarely less than engaging. But D’Amour makes the fatal mistake of pushing her lead character to a point of no return . . . and then letting her return. Great plays happen when people on the brink get pushed.