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Lisa D'Amour's play about a quartet of ordinary Americans is engaging, but lacks scope.

Laurie Metcalf, Kate Arrington and
Kevin Anderson in Detroit
(© Michael Brosilow)
When people unfamiliar with the work of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov see his plays, they often feel that nothing happens. His characters spend weeks eating, taking tea, drinking vodka, airing complaints, engaging in dalliances and sighing with unrequited love before any major dramatic event takes place. Still, by the end of the play everyone's lives have changed forever. Lisa D'Amour's engaging new play Detroit, now being presented by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, takes place far away from Russia, but it ultimately shares some -- if not quite enough -- Chekhovian attributes.

Despite its Motor City title, the work actually takes place in "a suburb outside a mid-sized American city." The set is a backyard view of two modest but attractive mid-20th century houses (realized to detailed perfection by scenic designer Kevin Depinet). In the brick house, are Kenny (Kevin Anderson) and Sharon (Kate Arrington), a thirty-something couple new to the neighborhood, who spend several weeks bonding and swapping barbeques with Ben (Ian Barford) and Mary (Laurie Metcalf), their forty-something neighbors in the frame house. As in Chekhov, one waits for D'Amour's dramatic purpose to be revealed, but ultimately, after 100 minutes, one settles for a catastrophic event instead.

Ben and Kenny are out of jobs. Mary and Sharon work, but their barely-mentioned careers (and possible female empowerment) are less important to D'Amour than the loss-of-work damage to their husbands. Mary drinks too much, while Kenny and Sharon are substance abusers gone clean. While D'Amour is clearly fond of her characters -- and takes an unsentimental approach to them -- it's clear that each one is a train-wreck waiting to happen.

More damaging to the play's effectiveness is the sense that D'Amour's characters are so ordinary that almost everyone watching the play can feel superior to them. Unlike Chekhov's folk, these four people aren't sufficiently dreamy, romantic, sentimental, pragmatic or pompous to enlarge them beyond the commonplace; nor does the small cast format allow for the kind of societal texture that would give the work greater scope.

Under Austin Pendleton's direction, the cast brings D'Amour's skillful, well-constructed dialogue to life. While one is aware that the gifted Metcalf is capable of blowing the other actors off the stage with her energy and intensity, she gracefully pulls back to blend seamlessly into the ensemble. Still, Metcalf does more with her eyes than any actor since Groucho Marx.