Meet the nightmare neighbors. Their names are Sharon and Kenny, and they’ve just moved into the unkempt tract house next door. Recent graduates of Rehab U., they seem friendly enough, even if Sharon gabs a little too frantically and Kenny’s taste runs to calf tattoos and lap dances.
It’s the impulses they unlock in you, though, that make Sharon and Kenny so scary: the feral urge to run wild, to howl at the moon, to tear up the pretty lawn and upend the pristine patio furniture. And it is this unleashing of darker basic instincts, on streets laid out for sedater domestic acts, that rivets us to Woolly Mammoth Theatre’s scintillating regional premiere of “Detroit.”
Lisa D’Amour’s tragicomedy of beer, barbecues and boombox-driven mayhem takes place in adjacent backyards of two couples living on the edge of desperation, in an inner-ring suburb that once upon a time represented the cultural and economic homogenization of American life and is now the increasingly divided domain of the haves, the have-littles and the have-almost-nothings.
The play, bracingly directed by John Vreeke, is brash and noisy: neighbors of Sharon (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey) and Kenny (Danny Gavigan), and the slightly more stable Mary (Emily Townley) and Ben (Tim Getman), would have ample reason to stock up on Advil. But for all its raucousness, “Detroit” becomes a rather somber eulogy for the American middle class, a stratum of society losing both its credit rating and its grip.
The paranoiac’s notion of subversion brewing in the lookalike house next door is a dramatic staple, twisted into a diabolical new shape in the FX cable series “The Americans,” about Soviet sleeper agents conducting operations from a D.C. suburb. In horror movies, political thrillers and social satires, we’re suckers for the story of the family on the block that, in retrospect, always seemed a little bit off.
“Detroit” insinuates itself intriguingly into this slightly creepy yet familiar genre. If it doesn’t break entirely new ground, it makes for both resonant social commentary and a meaty showcase for five actors. (The fifth is the reliably effective and newly svelte Michael Willis as an original homeowner.) Vreeke and Woolly have cast “Detroit” exceptionally well. It’s essential that all four inhabitants of these two households compel us to believe that the force that brings them together is not wholly to be trusted, that something other than companionship is coaxing them out of their isolation, weaving them more tightly into each other’s lives than happens in most neighborhoods these days.
Vreeke and the superb set designer Tom Kamm present these couples as being at the center of their own lonely, rundown universe — and we’re their nosy neighbors. They’ve reconfigured Woolly so that the stage is in the middle, with audience members on either side, peering past brick-and-aluminum-sided facades and into the back yard. (The best seats are in the middle of the long aisles; the sight lines on the far end, where I sat, are less than ideal.) The video projections onto those facades, of nostalgic suburban scenes, feel superfluous and to an unnecessary degree foreshadow a key speech late in the evening by Willis.
But the sophisticated way that sound designer Christopher Baine uses music heightens the evening’s sense of order decaying: mournful classical music plays during the transitions in the early scenes; as the 100-minute production unfolds, the layers of sound become more complex, and the music turns into mere noise. The theme of change of a discordant variety is neatly underscored.
We’re encouraged by D’Amour to second-guess ourselves about the vaguely unappetizing Kenny and Sharon, as the series of neighborly encounters progresses: Maybe they really have left the drugs behind. And who are we to judge people merely because their idea of hors d’oeuvres is Cheez Whiz? Gavigan, in skeevy-looking sleeveless tees, and Fernandez-Coffey, wearing cheetah-print cutoffs, are effortlessly convincing as recovering all-night party animals. Gavigan’s Kenny keeps a wary eye on Fernandez-Coffey’s Sharon as she waxes a little too enthusiastic about Ben and Mary’s big-box-store lawn chairs and grill. Even if you’re inclined to look askance at Kenny and Sharon, you get a sense that Gavigan and Fernandez-Coffey would be great company.
Still, the kind of intelligence at work here reveals that it’s the secrets of conventionally suburban Mary and Ben that are going to take “Detroit” to a more refined dramatic level. Like Fernandez-Coffey and Gavigan, Townley and Getman here contribute some of their best performances to date. Somehow, Townley measures out just the right volume of crazy in unhappy Mary, who is both attracted to and frightened by the burned-out exuberance of her backyard pal. And Getman manages the difficult trick of subtly and appealingly evoking in this recently laid-off bank employee the idea of a man who perhaps was never cut out for the straight and narrow.
Adroitly, “Detroit” follows the infatuation of Mary and Ben for Kenny and Sharon to a conclusion that, even if you don’t see it coming, makes complete sense. For mobility, upward or any other type, is no longer a consideration in the suburb of D’Amour’s fertile imagination. It’s a cul-de-sac in the purest sense — a national dead end.
by Lisa D’Amour. Directed by John Vreeke. Set, Tom Kamm; costumes, Ivania Stack; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Christopher Baine; video, Erik Pearson; fight choreography, Joe Isenberg. About 1 hour 45 minutes. Through Oct. 6 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. 202-393-3939. www.woollymammoth.net.