Audiences at Woolly Mammoth’s staging of “Detroit” might end up feeling like they’re spying on their neighbors rather than watching a play.
The production of Lisa D’Amour’s tragicomedy of suburban angst plays out on a canny set designed by Tom Kamm, with the backs of two ragged tract homes facing each other across a swath of grass. Viewers sit on either side, also facing each other.
“They become the other wall of the set,” Kamm says. “It’s almost like they’re in a house next door.”
“Detroit,” which played last year off-Broadway, employs that neighbor’s-eye view to creepy, voyeuristic effect. The action centers on two youngish couples in an inner-ring American suburb. (The title “Detroit” symbolizes civic decline; the play’s setting is never specified.)
It starts when yuppies Ben (Tim Getman) and Mary (Emily Townley), owners of a tidy deck and a hulking barbecue, invite new neighbors Sharon (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey) and Kenny (Danny Gavigan) to a get-to-know-you cookout.
It’s soon apparent that PTA meetings and home-equity loans won’t dominate the dinnertime chatter. Ben has just lost his job, and Sharon and Kenny are recovering addicts, getting on their feet while staying in an elderly uncle’s house.
“It’s really a play that’s on the razor’s edge between the dream of upward mobility and economic anxiety,” production dramaturge Miriam Weisfeld says.
The couples’ attempts to stay in — or climb into — America’s shrinking middle class dominate this tale of burgeoning friendships. Mary trots out fancy foods (caviar, gourmet salt) to impress the new neighbors; Kenny and Sharon, whose backyard is an abandoned wreck, attempt to reciprocate with burnt burgers on their Hibachi a few weeks later.
All the while, signs — a patio umbrella that keeps collapsing on people, inappropriate embraces — suggest that “life in suburbia is all just an illusion of perfection,” Weisfeld says. “They’re in that same quicksand that’s swallowing up the middle class.”
As the characters grow closer, they descend into a kind of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” meltdown. Drinks are downed, secrets are slipped, and, when it’s all over, both the emotional and the physical landscapes have changed dramatically.
In the end, the audience may come away feeling torn about these lands of good schools and megamansions. “Moving to the suburbs is a choice,” Weisfeld says. “We hope audience members ask themselves, ‘Why do I need a lawn or a house? Does it signify something?’ ”
In under two hours, “Detroit” thoroughly shatters any audience illusions that the burbs are a peaceful paradise — and breaks some lawn chairs along the way. But in the lobby at Woolly Mammoth, theatergoers will first find an escapist suburban fantasy: a setup of sleek Room & Board deck furniture, complete with yard games. “It’s a contemporary, modern, clean suburb out of a catalog,” set designer Tom Kamm says. “And then you go inside [for the play] and see what happens after 50 years of degradation.” Before entering the theater, patrons can slap on a name tag to indicate where they dwell — “town,” “country,” “suburb,” etc. Many may be tempted to switch to “city” after seeing the show.Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW; through Oct. 6, $25-$87.50; 202-393-3939. (Gallery Place)