Capsule Stage Reviews: October 2, 2014

Detroit By the end of Lisa D'Amour's provocative, spiky, prize-winning Detroit, suburban middle-class couple Mary and Ben (Mischa Hutchings and Jeff Miller) face their own apocalypse. All they have left among the burned-out ruins of their American Dream is each other. It's not a rosy picture. How they got here is comic and tremendously sad. If the jagged pieces of D'Amour's puzzle don't fit together as smoothly as they should, the overall picture, cleverly assembled by Catastrophic Theatre, is clearly in the unmistakable shape of dislocation and despair. How could this seemingly average American couple know that a friendly gesture like having the new neighbors over for a cookout would end in such a downer? Mary works as a paralegal, while Ben has lost his bank job and has only a few more weeks until his severance package dries up. He keeps occupied at home building a website to dispense financial advice, his library filled with self-help books. Slackers Kenny and Sharon (George Parker and Sara Jo Dunstan), a peg lower on the socioeconomic scale, have nothing. He works in a warehouse and can fix things around the house — like the bumpy sliding glass door that opens onto Mary and Ben's new patio — she answers phones at a call center and is partial to wearing too-tight tops and spangly Daisy Dukes. Fresh from drug rehab, where they met, they eat ramen noodles and Cheetos because they can't afford anything else. They have no furniture. There's a mysterious, creepy air about them. Something's not right. As the play's vignettes tumble forward (marvelously conveyed through Kevin Holden's turntable set that reveals both couples' backyards), the new neighbors insinuate themselves into Mary and Ben's lives. Secrets, strange dreams and an atmosphere of rot drift in, as does a whiff of sexy horseplay. Pleasant suburban living in this cookie-cutter subdivision originally called "Bright Houses" eases into the dark side. Mary loves her vodka, a lot it seems, not quite the pulled-together career woman we thought she was. Ben's overly gregarious nature becomes tainted with doubt about his future; while Kenny and Sharon hint at continued drug use. The couples bond in unhealthy ways, leading to a penultimate bacchanal. "You've got to live this moment," Sharon says seductively, "that's all you can do." When Ben and Mary succumb, the all-out revelry is like a dance on their graves. In a wistful coda, original homeowner Frank (Jim Tommaney) remembers what it was like when everything was fresh and clean and neighbors actually talked to each other while children played on the street. "Such a perfect memory," he sighs, "sometimes I wonder if it was real at all?" In these hard times, even nostalgia isn't what it used to be. The quartet of these misguided, lost couples could not be better. All of them weave D'Amour's loose character threads into striking individual portraits, with Dunstan's unstable Sharon a particular pleasure as she serves up her Cheez Whiz appetizer with the panache of Julia Child. Hutchings's Mary goes unmoored and woozy with an empathetic awareness of the pain beneath her cracking facade; Miller's hale-and-hearty Ben nears the precipice with an almost sad acknowledgment; and Parker's slim, strung-out Kenny is all tics and tension. Director Troy Schulze smoothly translates Detroit's more cryptic moments into vivid stage pictures that clarify the open-ended metaphors. There's definite sharpness in D'Amour's depiction. Her vision of the American Dream will cut you. Through October 18. 1119 East Freeway, 713-522-2723. — DLG

Peace in Our Time In the late '30s, Noel Coward became the most patriotic English playwright since Shakespeare. His playwriting heyday in the '20s and '30s saw him in pajamas, silk dressing gown, holding a martini, as he dissected the social and sexual mores in his idiosyncratic, and utterly unconventional, comedies such as Hay Fever, Private Lives and Design for Living. But the rise of fascism in the early '30s brought out his love for all things England, the "stiff upper lip" of English resolve, fortitude and indomitable courage. His effete Wilde-esque persona morphed into a national treasure after such patriotic films as Cavalcade (which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1934), This Happy Breed (a pastoral about the ordinary English who keep plugging on) and In Which We Serve (his tribute to the British navy). After the war, when he went to Paris to supervise a French production of Blithe Spirit, Coward was astonished to find an "atmosphere of subtle disintegration, lassitude and above all suspicion" because of the former Nazi occupation. The collaborators, part time appeasers, and outright sympathizers affected him deeply. He imagined what would have happened to England if it had lost the war, so he wrote Peace in Our Time (1947), a striking melodrama of what might have been, an intimate epic of the British heart. It has drama, comedy and shock in equal measure. There are patriotic speeches that mimic Henry V, only brought down to pub level, and plenty of reversals and surprises that occur just a bit before you think they might. This is old-fashioned playwriting skill at the highest level, the kind of play they don't write anymore. Peace in Our Time is set in the Shattocks' family bar, The Shy Gazelle near Knightsbridge and Sloane Square (a very tony neighborhood nowadays), where the entire panoply of English society shows up to drink and debate the fate of conquered England. Churchill's been shot as a traitor, the King and Queen are imprisoned at Windsor, there's a concentration camp on the Isle of Wight and there's a whiff of resistance in the air. The stalwart duo, Fred and wife Nora (Rutherford Cravens and Celeste Roberts), run the neighborhood pub, a family club of sorts. Feisty daughter Doris (Hannah Kreig) fills in when needed; soldier son Stevie (Billy Reed) hasn't been heard from and is presumed dead. The bar regulars include: cabaret actress Lyia and businessman husband George (Elizabeth Marshall Black and Joe Kirkendall); novelist Janet Braid, of questionable sex but impeachable moral fiber (Pamela Vogel), and her "best friend" Alma (Amy Garner Buchanan); Chorley Bannister, an influential magazine editor whose sympathies lie with the German conquerors, or anyone else in power at the time (Joel Sandel); the middle-class Bannisters, whose son is imprisoned in that Isle of Wight concentration camp (Carl Masterson and Lisa A. Williams); sympathetic neighborhood physician Dr. Venning (Joel F. Grothe); bickering but loving lower-class couple Alfie and Lily Blake (Jonathan Gonzalez and Michelle Britton); and — boo, hiss — the German "manager" of this section of London, Albrecht Richter (Fritz Dickmann). Other patrons come and go: streetwalker Gladys (Skyler Sinclair) with her German john; an Austrian set designer whom Chorley has his eyes on; and assorted Nazis and English good fellows. It's an impressive cast list, a who's who of English society straining under occupation. The good guys shine, the bad guys glower, the quislings are detestable. I am loathe to single out any of the fine cast, but Dickmann — dare I say "Herr" Dickmann — is wickedly suave and repugnant. His Albrecht Richter can proudly stand with any of those indelible '40s Hollywood Nazi portraits of the "man you love to hate," whether by Otto Preminger, Conrad Veidt or Walter Slezak. Sophisticated, seething and righteous in his dubious Reich theories, this villain sets Coward's play aflame. Every time Dickmann enters, you don't know what to expect. He might bash someone, arrest someone or offer them a drink. We pray for his comeuppance. You'll have to see the play to find out if he gets it. Will the underground resistance succeed? Will England survive? Will Fred finally get the Gordon's gin of his dreams? If you think you know your Noel Coward, Peace in Our Time will surprise in so many ways. At the end, you'll be waving the Union Jack and singing "God Save the Queen." Jolly good show, what? Through October 19. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard, 713-524-6706, www.mainstreettheater.com/home.html. — DLG

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover