San Diego Theater Review: DETROIT (San Diego REP)

by Tony Frankel on March 12, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional

THE ACTUAL CITY OF DETROIT HAS FEWER PROBLEMS THAN THIS PRODUCTION

Jeffrey Jones and Steve Gunderson in San Diego REP’s production of DETROIT by Lisa D’Amour, directed by Sam Woodhouse.After watching San Diego REP’s production of Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit, most audience members will be dumbstruck that this black comedy was a 2013 Obie winner, let alone a Pulitzer Prize finalist. But rest assured, it is indeed a very good if somewhat problematic play. The problem—and it’s a big one—is Sam Woodhouse’s direction. For a man who has been involved with theater as long as this San Diego institution, it’s surprising he doesn’t know that staging a comic farce in a farcical manner is a recipe for disaster, especially when the script already veers perilously close to being an Ayckbourn- and Albee-esque sit-com.

Steve Gunderson, Jeffrey Jones and Summer Spiro in San Diego REP’s production of DETROIT by Lisa D’Amour, directed by Sam Woodhouse.I’ll admit the play tries a bit too hard to find universal themes surrounding the decline and shift of suburban dreams, but D’Amour examines well the anxiety of Americans who are losing their grip on middle-class suburban comfort and upward mobility. Two couples are neighbors in a Levittown-like suburb of Anywhere, USA. When long-situated Ben and Mary invite their new neighbors Sharon and Kenny over for a barbeque, truths are revealed. As with the cheaply made patio furniture, the cracks in this cozy community lifestyle become exposed. Ben has been fired and is starting his own web site; Mary works as a paralegal, bringing home the bacon and a drinking problem; Sharon becomes easily weepy when ruminating that neighbors no longer visit with each other; and Kenny confides that he and Sharon met in drug rehab, and that the house they recently moved into next door belongs to a relative. Nothing is what it seems as the play becomes almost a series of vignettes leading to an apocalyptic climax.

Jeffrey Jones, Lisel Gorell-Getz, and Steve Gunderson in San Diego REP’s production of DETROIT by Lisa D’Amour, directed by Sam Woodhouse.

In many ways, the play is about control: control of our illusions, our neighbors, our inhibitions, our memories. An examination of the script could be a review in itself, but it is Woodhouse’s production which nullifies the conversation. The comic possibilities are destroyed at every turn as the actors do not display characters based in reality; more often than not, emotions are forced and the performances superficial.

Jeffrey Jones, Summer Spiro and Lisel Gorell-Getz in San Diego REP’s production of DETROIT by Lisa D’Amour, directed by Sam Woodhouse.

Even within this context, Summer Spiro manages to bring vulnerability to Sharon, but Steve Gunderson tosses away lines with zero subtext as Ben. Jeffrey Jones—who isn’t noticeably different when he drinks—is all artifice with no fear or threat as Kenny. And Lisel Gorell-Getz’ sit-com Mary makes Bonnie Franklin’s work on One Day at a Time look like underacting. Only the great Robert Benedetti (erstwhile artistic director of Chicago’s Court Theatre) is allowed to be authentic as an ex-suburbanite named Frank, who arrives at the end with a monologue that wraps up most of the questions raised in the narrative.

Lisel Gorell-Getz, Summer Spiro, and Jeffrey Jones in San Diego REP’s production of DETROIT by Lisa D’Amour, directed by Sam Woodhouse.

The cartoon acting is matched by an intentionally cartoon set, designed by D Martyn Bookwalter to resemble a two-dimensional comic strip with flat mottled green bushes and a dappled green stage floor to represent grass. Even though it is situated on an expensive turntable which moves us from house to house, the scenery backfires because it looks like a cheap set designed at a high school scene shop (stranger still is the obviously plasticized food that sits next to food which is actually consumed). Kevin Anthenill’s inconsistent and incongruous sound design includes a sound effect for a grill being lit, but no sound for sizzling hamburgers; when a ghetto blaster is turned on downstage, the music comes from inside the house.

Steve Gunderson and Lisel Gorell-Getz in San Diego REP’s production of DETROIT by Lisa D’Amour, directed by Sam Woodhouse.

Even though the play takes place in a “first ring” suburb of any mid-size American city, the playwright notes that she choose the title Detroit because that city is the symbol of the American Dream drying up. Lacking any semblance of contextual authenticity, Woodhouse’s unconvincing, hectic, and motivation-free direction is a symbol that his vision may be drying up as well. One can only wonder what the REP’s exceptional Venus in Fur would have been like had Woodhouse not had Kim Rubenstein as co-director. It’s productions such as this that make San Diego REP seem more like community theater on steroids than professional theater. It may be time for a shake-up.

Summer Spiro and Jeffrey Jones in San Diego REP’s production of DETROIT by Lisa D’Amour, directed by Sam Woodhouse.

 

Lisel Gorell-Getz and Steve Gunderson in San Diego REP’s production of DETROIT by Lisa D’Amour, directed by Sam Woodhouse.

photos by Daren Scott

Detroit
San Diego REPertory Theatre
Lyceum Space, 79 Horton Plaza
scheduled to end on March 16, 2014
for tickets, call (619) 544-1000
or visit www.sdrep.org

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