Arts & Culture

REVIEW: Riverside's 'Detroit' drives through American dream

Worlds collide in gritty production

Nothing can go wrong with a friendly backyard barbecue among new neighbors — right? A bump on the head is the first of many wrongs that befall the couples in “Detroit,” an edgy Pulitzer Prize finalist unfolding at Riverside Theatre through Feb. 11. Cast members are (from left) Kehry Anson Lane, Jennifer Fawcett, John Miersen and Katy Slaven. (S. Benjamin Farrar)
Nothing can go wrong with a friendly backyard barbecue among new neighbors — right? A bump on the head is the first of many wrongs that befall the couples in “Detroit,” an edgy Pulitzer Prize finalist unfolding at Riverside Theatre through Feb. 11. Cast members are (from left) Kehry Anson Lane, Jennifer Fawcett, John Miersen and Katy Slaven. (S. Benjamin Farrar)

IOWA CITY — The two houses on the Riverside Theatre stage tell two completely different stories.

One is neatly painted white, with a sliding-glass door leading to a deck sporting a shiny barbecue grill and pretty patio furniture. Next door is a fading green facade leading to a neglected dirt yard edged with cinder blocks and sporting abandoned construction materials covered in a blue tarp, with a pair of black work boots dangling from the electrical wires.

But the sliding glass door on the well-kept side sticks — the first of many well-kept secrets that begin to unravel when the approaching-middle-aged couple invite their edgy new neighbors over for a make-nice barbecue.

Nothing makes nice for very long in “Detroit.” This 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalist unfolds on the intimate Iowa City stage through Feb. 11. Penned by Lisa D’Amour — who will participate in an audience talkback after the Feb. 3 performance — the script won the Obie Award for Best new American Play in 2013.

It’s a meditation on the collapse of the American dream — a sort of Arthur Miller oration for a new generation. Nothing comes easy on this crumbling Easy Street so full of promise on the precipice of demise.

It’s not easy to watch. It’s not easy to embrace. But it is easy to cheer on Riverside’s A-list cast and artistic staff who bring to life these uneasy lives. And it gives viewers plenty on which to meditate about how their own neighborhoods mirror this one.

“Detroit” could be set in any city. It reflects my neighborhood — a mix of established homeowners, longtime renters and revolving-door renters. We don’t neighbor much. We exchange pleasantries and our frustrations with escalating noise and crime. That’s not the picket-fence neighborhood of my youth. But inevitably, things change.

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Under D’Amour’s pointed prose, the neat and tidy “Leave it to Beaver” Cleavers have morphed into sharp cleavers that hack down the facades, picking at each couple’s scabs until they bleed all over each other. Some will heal over. Others will not.

Under Angie Toomsen’s insightful direction, Kehry Anson Lane as Ben and Jennifer Fawcett as Mary seem to have it all together. And yet, Mary is blind-date nervous when Kenny (John Miersen) and Sharon (magenta-haired Katy Slaven) come over for dinner. Mary skitters about, fussing with the table umbrella and the food, wanting everything to be perfect. Perfection, however, is impossible.

The couples are from totally different worlds — and when their worlds collide, everything explodes. The older couple wants to mentor the younger couple. The younger couple wants to uproot their rooted neighbors.

Alas, Ben has been laid off from his job and Mary is often bored in her paralegal position. They’ve been spinning their wheels, and now the ruts are too deep to drive out of without a big push. Rough and tumble Kenny and Sharon are eager to be their pushers.

The men bond over financial advice, the women over the prospect of a girls-only camping weekend, leaving their baggage at home.

All are addicted to something, and addiction threatens to be their undoing.

They dance, they swear, they scream, they fight, they disappear, they reappear — borne of energy, exhaustion, fire and ice.

This is tough material filled with several big laughs to smooth out the bumps for just a moment.

If you like your theater with a side of self-reflection, this is your mirror.

IF YOU GO

What: “Detroit”

Where: Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City

When: Through Feb. 11; 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $12 to $30, Riverside Box Office, (319) 338-7672 or Riversidetheatre.org/detroit

Talkbacks: Post-performance discussions with playwright Lisa D’Amour on Feb. 3, followed by a reception; with Miriam Gilbert and the cast Feb. 8

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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