Do good fences make good neighbors? I’m not sure, but if Lisa D’Amour’s play Detroit is any clue, don’t make your fence out of plywood. 

D’Amour’s Pulitzer Prize-finalist play makes its New York debut at Playwrights Horizons, and to be honest, I’m not sure what all the fuss is about. Detroit looks in on couple Mary and Ben (Amy Ryan and David Schwimmer) just as they meet their new neighbors, Sharon and Kenny (Sarah Sokolovic and Darren Pettie). (Veteran John Cullum appears briefly at the end of the play.) Throughout the play, the couples get to know each other. Sharon and Kenny learn that Ben has been out of work but has a plan to get back on track; Mary and Ben learn that Sharon and Kenny are recovering (and struggling) addicts, looking to make a new start in suburban Detroit, described in the Playbill as “a ‘first-ring’ suburb outside of a mid-size American city.” 

All this learning going on and I still came out of the play uneducated as to the reason I was supposed to care about these people. I don’t know exactly what D’Amour was trying to teach us. It’s obvious she was striving for something, though; Detroit is clearly meant to say something about life in American right now. But for me, that “something” just didn’t land.

D’Amour sets the scene with a “forward” (printed in the program) about plywood. Quoting a New York Times article from 1997, it says, “plywood has a lifespan of 40 years. Over time, the glue that holds plywood together dries up. Then walls buckle, split and peel. Panels pop loose. Rooms, doors and windows morph into trick-or-treat versions of themselves.” And so we watch as Mary and Ben, the metaphorical plywood, buckle, split and peel.  

In fact, it seems that once the plywood begins to warp, the only way to star over is to start over from scratch. By the end of the play, Mary and Ben have hit rock bottom and so they can begin again; they can eschew their best laid plans and do anything they like. And so out of the ashes rises the phoenix. 

But what are we to learn about ourselves and the human condition? That the only way to accomplish anything meaningful is to bottom out? That the only way to effect change, to create something beautiful is to destroy everything you know? 

I’m not saying Detroit is badly written or poorly acted, but I just couldn’t connect to it. I found myself asking, “What’s the point?” and not being able to come up with a good answer.  

New York Times theatre critic Charles Isherwood has a different take on Detroit.