Just a dream?

Blue Room’s latest peels back the layers of American suburbia

Mary (Amber Miller) and Ben (Brett Edwards) in the backyard of a “mid-sized American city.”

Mary (Amber Miller) and Ben (Brett Edwards) in the backyard of a “mid-sized American city.”

Photo by Joe Hilsee

Detroit shows Thursday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m., through Jan. 30, at the Blue Room.
Tickets: $15 (except Thursdays—pay what you can).
Blue Room Theatre
139 W. First St.
a href="http://www.blueroom<theatre.com/">www.blueroom<theatre.com</a>

Inviting the new neighbors over for a backyard barbecue is a quintessential and generally innocuous suburban experience. And setting up comically and/or dramatically conflicted personalities as neighbors is a relatively common—and often successful—plot device for theater. In Detroit, playwright Lisa D’Amour explores and blends the tragicomic elements of physical proximity and emotional disparity as her characters slide from banal pleasantries to bacchanalian disarray.

The set, meticulously designed and decorated by Amber Miller, impressively depicts adjoining backyards “in the ‘first-ring’ suburb outside of a mid-size American city,” which is “not necessarily Detroit.” We are first introduced to Ben (Brett Edwards) and Mary (Miller), a very normal suburban couple at the dawn of middle age struggling to keep it together as the recently laid-off Ben spends his time working on creating a website for economic planning and consultating. They are hosting a barbecue to get to know their new neighbors, Kenny (Rob Kayson) and Sharon (Erika Soerensen), a slightly younger couple who, we eventually learn, met in rehab and work as a warehouseman and a call center operator, respectively.

As Mary fiddles with the patio umbrella, she recites the details of a strange dream with overtones of economic stress and Ben prepares to grill some steaks. As the tiny clues of entropy reveal themselves in the malfunction of the umbrella that won’t stay open and the sliding door that’s going off its track, we begin to feel the tension underlying the struggle of the hosts to maintain a sense of calm civility as the facts of economic peril endanger their desired middle-class complacency.

Sharon and Kenny are less easily summed up. Sharon is seemingly comfortable living in a house “without a stick of furniture,” eating ramen for many meals. Her comment that Ben “might be British” because of a turn of phrase he uses seems kooky, but she also hits realistically on the ways chance circumstances can affect one’s fate. Trying to assuage Mary’s fears, she says, “I’m supposed to set goals and take night classes that will expand my horizons. And I guess that works, Mary. I guess so. But to be honest, I feel like the real opportunities are the ones that fall into your lap. Like winning the lottery or someone’s rich uncle needing a personal assistant. That almost happened to me once, Mary. And everything would have been different.”

Kenny is more of a visceral live wire, at one point hilariously trying to talk the reticent Ben into going out for a night at a strip club. But his beer-fueled bro-down talk is also laced with a vein of envy for Ben’s seeming stability and economic planning.

The eventual bacchanalian climax of the play is where the perhaps subconscious hostility between the characters’ points of view reach a tipping point toward the title’s subtle use of Detroit as a symbol of this country’s slide into economic entropy. D’Amour seems to be hinting that the failure of the manufacturing industries that once powered the rise of a working and stable middle class have resulted in a parallel dissolution and degradation of the aspirations in those who once made up that class. And director Paul Stout and the wonderful cast do fine work in bringing it all to light.

Reinforcing these ideas, as the play reaches its conclusion, a fifth character in the form of Frank (Keith Barrett), an older man who once lived in the neighborhood, arrives to whimsically reminisce about the former pleasant glories of the neighborhood. “It is such a perfect memory,” he says, recalling the promise of the now-rundown subdivision. “I wonder if it’s real at all.”