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Portland Playhouse's 'Detroit' Paints Grim American Portrait

Jason Rouse and Victor Mack play in Detroit, now at Portland Playhouse.

Jason Rouse and Victor Mack play in Detroit, now at Portland Playhouse.

Aaron Spencer/OPB

Detroit, a Pulitzer Prize finalist play by Lisa D’Amour, is not actually about the Motor City. Rather, it’s a metaphor for any mid-size American city during a recession — like Portland, for example. 

Portland Playhouse is currently performing the play about two neighboring couples who hold a barbecue. Written in 2009, Detroit is a snapshot of America in tough economic times; one pair of neighbors hasn’t a lick of furniture in their house. The play is littered with naughty humor and irreverent dialogue — hardly five minutes go by without some form of vulgarity — but at its core, it’s a dark commentary on what may be a new, pared-down American dream.

Detroit got rave reviews for its off-Broadway run, but it has received mixed reviews elsewhere, including in its namesake city. Locally, The Oregonian said the play “has little to say,” while Oregon ArtsWatch wrote it is “mesmerizing” and “well-acted.” A&L talked with Portland Playhouse artistic director Brian Weaver about the production.

Brian Weaver, artistic director, Portland Playhouse

Brian Weaver, artistic director, Portland Playhouse

Aaron Spencer/OPB

Arts & Life: What is Detroit about to you?

Brian Weaver: Detroit is a play about neighbors, a set of neighbors who make the bold decision to invite the other set of neighbors over for a barbecue one night. They’re very different kinds of couples, and over the course of five to six scenes together, they get to know each other in a deeper way than they ever imagined.

A&L: Why did you choose the play for this season?

BW: Lisa D’Amour started writing it in 2008, 2009 right around the beginning of the financial crisis. She was curious about a couple things: when infrastructures collapse, when safety nets are pulled out, the question of identity. How much do we know about other people? Do we know who our neighbors are? Do we know who we are ourselves? She uses Detroit as a metaphor both for what happens when a system collapses and how that can be reflected on a personal level, and also for the opportunity of reinvention.

A&L: What do you like about the play?

BW: It’s a very funny comedy. It’s not a sitcom kind of funny; there aren’t well-metered jokes. It’s very messy and truthful. The characters are honest about the wreck of their lives, and it’s a very painful, truthful kind of funny.

But if it were just funny, it wouldn’t be enough. I think at its heart it’s about people’s hopes and dreams, what’s really important in our human experience. A lot of times, the characters are talking about their dreams, so it’s a comedy based on the truthful wreck of our lives.

A&L: How do you feel people have been receiving it? 

BW: It’s a great mix of reactions. Some people seem overwhelmed or bowled over by it. Some people love the first couple scenes. Some people love the last scenes. Some people love the party scene. It’s all over the map. I think that means it’s a complex work of art, when people like different parts more or less. 

A&L: What do you think people get out of it?

BW: I think the play is sparking some good conversation and debate about what it means to be in a neighborhood, what it means to be neighbors and how things have changed. It’s an interesting conversation after a show: Who knows their neighbors and who doesn’t? Is that a cultural shift, a generational thing or just person to person?

How is work going on your next play of the season, The Other Place?

BW: We’ve been having all of our design meetings, which are going really well, so we’re ready to start rehearsal. We also started doing the research. The play is about discovering Alzheimer’s and dementia, so I would say most of the work so far has been medical research on Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Detroit runs through November 2, 2013 at Portland Playhouse.

Portland Playhouse Detroit Brian Weaver

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