"DO YOU FEEL like a construction worker building a house, or a twig just floating downstream?"
The play is called Detroit, but it could be set anywhere: A once working-class neighborhood whose fortunes have changed, the original residents long since moved out. Some houses in disrepair, and others remodeled so extensively that they no longer seem like part of the same neighborhood. And two sets of neighbors, one trying to climb their way up from rock bottom, and the other clinging tightly to a middle-class existence that's threatening to slip away.
Portland Playhouse's excellent season opener, directed by Brian Weaver from Lisa D'Amour's 2011 Pulitzer-nominated script, is a complex and ambitious show framed as a simple odd-couple pairing. When Sharon (Kelly Tallent) and Kenny (Victor Mack) move in next door to Mary (Brooke Totman) and Ben (Jason Rouse), the couples form a friendship despite the clear disparity in their life experiences and economic status. Sharon and Kenny are recovering addicts who claim they met in rehab, though it's obviously wise to take everything they say with a grain of salt. And Mary and Ben are doing what young couples are supposed to be doing: They own their house, Mary has a good job as a paralegal, and even though Ben was recently laid off from his job at a bank, he's working on setting up his own financial-planning business.
The economic gap is huge, but everyone is too polite to say anything about it, and Sharon and Kenny gamely extend neighborly hospitality by hosting backyard barbeques they can barely afford. Where Mary tried to impress with fancy sea salt sprinkled on tomatoes from Whole Foods, Sharon serves Cheetos and Texas caviar, joking with equal parts self-consciousness and good cheer that the theme of her appetizers is "white trash."
Daniel Meeker's set, which remains static throughout the play, quietly illustrates the difference in the circumstance of these friends: One yard is tidy and cared for, with a fancy barbeque and a decent set of patio furniture, and the other is run-down, paint chipping on the side of the house.
Detroit is a complex script, avoiding too-simple characterizations of people at very different places in their lives, and the cast is up to the challenge of portraying these resolutely multifaceted characters. Victor Mack and Kelly Tallent, in particular, walk a tightrope between charismatic and erratic, their good intentions warring with a past that's proving difficult to escape.
The show's only off-note is in its sound design, an aggressive palette of gunshots and sirens that heavy-handedly insists on the neighborhood's rough edges.
Through a series of backyard barbeques and PBR-fueled bullshit sessions, these couples grapple with questions that equally face the country as a whole—questions about control, happiness, community, and whether it's better to keep clawing for a hold on the American dream, or to burn it all down and start again anew.