Saturday, 30 June 2012


To the National to see Detroit, the latest import from the ever exciting Chicago based Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Unlike the epic August: Osage County, which lifted the London Theatre a couple of years ago, the company are, this visit, offering a smaller scale four hander, which nevertheless forensically explores and destroys some key planks of the American dream.

Set in the neighbouring backyards of two families on the outskirts of Detroit writer Lisa D'Amour paints a miniature study of a decaying society facing up to a new depression. Mary and Ben run their modest home with calm efficiency, catalogue furniture and a friendly barbecue to welcome new neighbours Sharon and Kenny, but from the first moment, when Mary struggles to put up the umbrella designed to keep their patio table in the shade, we sense that a storm is coming.

Steadily the play reveals secrets. Kenny and Sharon are recovering drug addicts and fraudsters, Mary struggles with a massive drink problem and Ben is wasting his life away on the Internet, where he has taken on a British avatar. As the characters get to know each other they begin to spiral downwards, each slip of the mask of respectability is treated as a step on the journey to self-realisation, but is, in fact, just another stage in the path towards oblivion.

In one wonderful moment the couples reconfigure Mary and Sharon decide to reconnect with another American ideal and go hiking in the great outdoors. In response Kenny and Ben prepare to celebrate their own vision of America with a night of libertine freedom and debauchery, on the town. The plans are curtailed when the girls, too infantile to carry through their romantic plan, return to the comfort of their home, leaving the men, who you suspect are also unfit for their self-appointed role, hanging out to dry. D'Amour is clear that the twin desires of convenience and dependence are natural, but ultimately destructive bedfellows. The acting is universally superb.

Detroit isn't a classic, but in the chaos of the final scene, which reminded me of the denouement of Jim Cartwright's Road - another play eulogising the collapse of a culture - we glimpse the hedonistic death throws of America; a society in terminal economic decline.

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