That backyard slice of real-estate to call one’s own, a place for imbibing and cooking meat over a flame with our invited guests, conjures up sensations both of one’s own time as well as the universal: The experience might not have been all that dissimilar in those prehistoric days after we first learned to apply flame to vanquished prey. And in Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit at the Jungle Theater, we’re both in our contemporary suburbs and somewhere hazier, deeper, and ultimately both exhilarating and deeply disturbing.
We are introduced to Ben (John Middleton) and Mary (Angela Timberman), staring down an increasingly toxic pot of middle age, unemployment (his), and copious drinking (hers) that they allay with optimistic bromides and incessant barbequing. Then, like an unpredictable wind, the vacated property next to theirs is lit up by the presence of the younger Sharon (Anna Sundberg) and Kenny (Tyson Forbes), a bit lower on the suburban-respectability scale but nonetheless friendly, apparently guileless, and game for a series of cookout rendezvous that comprises the subsequent goings-on.
Train wrecks are so much better in slow motion. Middleton’s aging professional is lost, brittle, barely able to gather up a cohesive identity to present in order to brave his changing circumstances. It’s a courageous performance, along with Timberman’s, whose boozy wife flashes glimmers of vulnerability and little bolts of malice toward her husband that speak to years, maybe decades, of suppressed selves and sideways communication.
You might be having a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? flashback by this point (Edward Albee’s domestic scare-fest also played at the Jungle, in 2010), but with a crucial distinction. Albee’s classic occupied a place of bleak desolation and a morally blanched backdrop in which the older generation toyed with the younger—here, we’re all in it together, sort of, with all four characters in their way striving for meaning amidst a yearning for connection and neighborliness that happens in elusive fits and starts.
Weird and intermittently spooky in its mounting sense of irrationality and desperation, what plays out next feels astoundingly right in the Jungle’s close confines. Joel Sass’s stage design (he also directs) unveils a series of show-off quick changes—without an intermission, with sleights of hand happening during brief between-scene blackouts in which the fine detailed set shifts with dreamlike abruptness to mirror the unmoored dreaminess to which the characters increasingly succumb.
The penultimate scene is a party for the four in which all bets turn out to be more or less off—it’s about ten minutes of unhinged revelry and unchained id, a bacchanal that is captivating and genuinely unsettling. It also drives the plot into a series of directions, some mildly unexpected, one downright shocking, that leads to a denouement equal parts unveiling and walleyed hangover, with a short scene featuring Jay Hornbacher and the evocation of a past that may, or may not, have been significantly different from our present.
And that’s what burns in the memory about Detroit after it’s finished—a lurch in the heart that’s eerily like the texture of dreams, substantively like the matter of our everydays, spoken in the language of our fleeting weekends. The despair in these suburban backyards flows all beneath the surface, until it doesn’t.