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THEATER REVIEW: San Diego Rep’s “Detroit”

All is not quite as advertised in suburbia, playwright Lisa D’Amour shows us in “Detroit,” a 2011 Pulitzer Prize finalist in its West Coast premiere through March 16 at San Diego Repertory Theatre.

That’s not exactly a startling revelation, but D’Amour wants us to consider whether it ever was, and where we go from here.

The play’s title is less a geographic designation than a metaphor for decaying middle class dreams. “Detroit” takes place in “a suburb of a mid-sized American city” – one of those tract-home oases built in the late ’50s to satisfy the American dream of home ownership. D Martyn Bookwalter’s versatile turntable set design easily allows the switch from one house to the other.

When the lights come up, Ben (Steve Gunderson) and his wife Mary (Lisel Gorell-Getz) are hosting a backyard barbecue for new neighbors Kenny (Jeffrey Jones) and Sharon (Summer Spiro).

Ben, a low-key bank employee for more than a decade, was recently laid off. Now he’s trying to build a web site in order to start a home-based financial planning business. Mary, a paralegal at a law firm, never looks quite happy. In fact, she’s scared, and drinks a little too much to try to forget that problem.

Kenny and Sharon are a little younger and a lot less buttoned-down than their hosts. Tattooed Kenny looks a bit rough around the edges and works in a warehouse. Sharon, who answers customer service calls at a phone bank, is voluble and a bit strange. She has what Kenny calls “a sailor mouth” and outsized on-the-surface emotions, including becoming weepy because neighbors don’t ask each other to dinner anymore. Both are recently out of drug rehab and have a rather loosey-goosey approach to what Mary might consider The Way Things Are Done.

You might think these couples would have little in common, and you’d be right. But they’ve invited Kenny and Sharon to dinner because, as Ben puts it, “we have no friends” and it may be they have something to teach each other.

D’Amour is adept at creating tension, and that’s what she does here – especially in the first act – in an exhausting series of scenes that come across as sketch comedy, illustrated as extreme behavior that seems unrelated to what I take to be the question at hand: what is each character’s American dream, and how will they achieve it?

The second act goes way off the deep end in ways I won’t reveal – except to say that an abortive girls-only camping trip turns into a scene I feared would never end – but one is left with a less than positive vibe about the whole.

Spiro (a new face at the Rep) lets it all hang out in a nonstop off-the-chart performance that wins the prize for energy expended.

Gorell-Getz’s Mary is less voluble and more fearful, but just as domineering as Sharon.

Gunderson is steady as they go, his Ben a sympathetic if almost dull character in this extreme company.

Jones’ Kenny turns out to be the most sympathetic character – a bad boy trying to move to the “good” side and take his weaker (but louder) wife along.

There’s a lot of activity, but not much enlightenment going on in this “Detroit.” It’s a matter of too much work for too little dramatic payoff.

The details

“Detroit” plays through March 16 at San Diego Repertory Theatre’s Lyceum Space, 79 Horton Plaza, Downtown.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (619) 544-1000 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.