by Charles Brousse
The American Dream is getting yet another bashing in Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit, the final presentation of Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company’s 2014-2015 season.
The term has always been more like an advertising slogan for a miracle product whose claims have never been proven than a description of reality. Way before James Truslow Adams first referred to the Dream in his 1931 book The Epic of America, similar language was being used to describe everyone’s opportunity to move up on the socioeconomic ladder if they “worked hard and played by the rules.”
Unfortunately, however, the “everyone” he named has at various times not included—and, in some cases, still omits—Native Americans, African-American slaves, women, racial, religious and sexual minorities, and today’s struggling 99 percent of the population, who, for one reason or another have been unable to ride the wave of prosperity that has lifted the remaining 1 percent to unparalleled heights.
While politicians trolling for votes continue to ignore the obvious irony, artists haven’t been fooled. A long list of playwrights—from Eugene O’Neill to the present crop—have pointed to the contradiction and its effect on Americans’ behavior and outlook. Early on, the impact was given tragic overtones, as in O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Lately, though, the preferred lens has been satire, frequently including elements of outright farce.
This is where D’Amour’s Detroit comes in. Although the title suggests that it is based on Motor City’s decline into bankruptcy during the recent Great Recession (the play was written in 2009 and debuted at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre a year later), D’Amour is quoted in a program note as saying, “It’s about a particular anxiety the name of that city evokes … a symbol to so many people of the American Dream drying up.”
Ben (Jeff Garrett) and his wife Mary (Amy Resnick), both early-middle-aged, live in the outer suburban ring of a typical heartland city. Due to the recession’s impact on real estate sales, he has been laid off from his longtime position as a bank loan officer. His announced intent to replace it with an online financial consulting service is taken with a grain of salt by Mary, who is herself unhappily locked into a sterile paralegal job, for which the remedy is a glass or two of her favorite booze.
Enter their new neighbors, Kenny (Patrick Kelly Jones) and Sharon (Luisa Frasconi), penniless recovering drug addicts who are moving into the empty house next door, courtesy of Kenny’s just-deceased aunt. He is employed as a warehouseman and she deals with consumer complaints at a call center. For reasons known only to them—but perhaps related to their collective misery—these four disparate people quickly bond in a figurative and literal dance that presages the play’s cataclysmic finale.
Under the direction of Josh Costello, who is known for his emphasis on actors’ physicality, Aurora’s ensemble enlivens the 100-minute, no intermission play and makes the most of its sporadic opportunities for humor. Sometimes, however, one has the feeling that they are working too hard to make a dying horse stand up and walk to the finish line. Which leads to the larger question: How many more films, TV series, novels and—yes, plays—do we need to tell us that things aren’t going very well these days here in our very own America the Beautiful? And when does it stop being funny?
NOW PLAYING: ‘Detroit’ runs through Sunday, July 26 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley. For more information, call 510/843-4822, or visit auroratheatre.org.