If the last five years have taught us anything (and I don't mean the Jason Robert Brown musical, which has taught us its own set of life lessons), it's how easily – and quickly – the American Dream can go up in smoke. But in case you need a reminder, there's Lisa D'Amour's savvy, frequently poetic, and ultimately bittersweet play Detroit – a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize – now getting its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons.
Mind you, while D'Amour's characters and language practically sing on the page, they're less memorable on this particular stage. The often excellent director Anne Kauffman can't quite get a handle on the piece's tricky tonal challenges, and has miscast two of the central roles, blunting the work's impact. In fact, Louisa Thompson's turntable set and nifty effects practically (and sadly) steal the show.
When we first meet Ben (David Schwimmer) and his wife Mary (Amy Ryan) in their backyard, entertaining their brand-new neighbors, Sharon (Sarah Sokolovic) and Kenny (Darren Pettie), it appears to be a typical summer night in the suburbs.
Soon enough, D'Amour clues us in to the large cultural differences between the couple. Ben is an educated loan officer – currently unemployed but working on launching a financial planning website – and Mary is a hard-working, essentially unhappy paralegal, while Sharon and Kenny are fresh out of rehab and toiling at minimum wage jobs.
However, it doesn't take long for the couples to bond, and for D'Amour to show us their fundamental similarities. And soon enough, Ben and Mary are practically mesmerized by their free-thinking, free-spirited neighbors. That development would be far more effective, however, if all the actors didn't seem to start the play at near-fever pitch, a miscalculation on Kauffman's part that doesn't let the work breathe.
More damagingly, Schwimmer is decidedly flat as Ben; he barely registers both the physical and emotional pain the character endures at different points in the play, and ultimately gives his co-stars little to work with, a large problem in a show heavily reliant on two-character exchanges.
Ryan, a two-time Tony Award nominee, has many heartbreaking moments as Mary, who spends much of the play trying to drown her fears and disappointment in large plastic cups of vodka. But she's perhaps just a tad too earthy for the character; there's little sense of her ever being buttoned-up enough to become so unbuttoned.
Conversely, Pettie is utterly believable (and at times downright scary) as the volatile Kenny, grasping with shaky hands to hold on to his newfound sobriety, and Sokolovic is superb as the alternately strong-willed and fragile Sharon.
Best of all, the entire cast gets a small if valuable master class in acting from the venerable John Cullum, who shows up shortly before the end as Frank, who has a strong connection to one of the characters. D'Amour not only hands him the script's funniest line, but a gorgeous monologue about the glories of the past that will likely reverberate with many older audience members, and set others to question whether the "good old days" were that good -- no matter how "bad" today might seem.