Capsule Stage Reviews: October 9, 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

Devil Dog Six Move over, War Horse, there's a new pony in town and this one is trying to make you think about big issues rather than simply tug on your heartstrings and help you shed a tear. Devil Dog Six, the new play by Fengar Gael set in the world of competitive horseracing, uses the racetrack to examine themes of ambition, competition, ethics and integrity. And oh, yeah, there's even some bigotry and misogyny thrown in for good measure. But just because a play wants to examine big themes doesn't mean it can do so successfully, and such is the case with the thin but nevertheless enjoyable Devil Dog Six. The story centers on Devon Tramore (Sammi Sicinski), a female jockey in a man's world. She has just suffered a severe brain injury after a racing accident that investigators believe might have been a plot by another jockey to end her racing career for good. Devon may have made it into the boys' locker room and she can certainly cuss and swagger with the best of them, but none of the gents are really happy to have her there. Gael's script plays out in two linear paths. There's the investigation, which Devon wants no part of, and the fact that while recovering in hospital, she miraculously develops the ability to talk with horses in a kind of Dr. Dolittle snort-and-whinny zoolingualism. Devil Dog Six, the star colt of her mother's stable, catches Devon's eye when she realizes that her newfound talent is not only fun but a great advantage for when she's well enough to ride again. Devon after all is not just a gal who loves horses; she's a rabid competitor with a chip of being female on her shoulder and an insatiable desire to win at all costs. With Devil Dog Six as her mount, Devon believes she can achieve glory. But like all those who chase ambition blindly and with questionable ethics, Devon and those she cares about suffer from her decisions. Had Gael stopped there and dug down to really explore the notions of winning and gender politics, maybe Devil Dog Six would have more to say. Instead she piles on another big issue in the form of an interracial relationship and double-dips into the metaphysical with a voodoo-practicing nurse/confidant, and the result is that none of the play's big topics get more than a superficial glimpse. Oh look, Devon speaks horse. Oh look, she's treated badly by the male jockeys. Oh look, not everyone is pleased that she's dating a black guy. It plays like an issue checklist that is comprehensive in its roll call but ultimately weightless at the core. Good thing, then, that the production is such a standout. In a true display of masterful staging, director David Rainey manages to elevate this show beyond the limitations of the script and wins the Triple Crown. Whether it's his ability to turn his cast of six into thoroughbreds racing down the track or ponies in a stable simply doing whatever it is that ponies do, Rainey continually brings equine magic to the stage. He's also equally good with his human characters. With 25 roles played by six actors, it's a challenge to keep the authenticity up when so many quick changes are required. Rainey confidently gives his cast room to shine while imposing economy on the action to keep things swiftly moving along. His alternating band of narrators never seems trite, and his occasional actor-as-prop touches add whimsy. Notable in the uniformly talented cast are Cheryl Tanner and Travis Ammons, whose comic timing as Devon's parents brings many smiles to the stage; Sam Flash channeling his inner horse for Devil Dog Six; and Sicinski, whose energy as Devon is infectious even if her two-dimensional character isn't. There is no question that there's more to be mined from David Rainey's production than there is from Fengar Gael's 95-minute play. The important issues are present but are disappointingly bereft of revelation. Still, sometimes great direction and a talented cast can be exciting even if the material isn't. The racetrack scenes alone are worth the price of admission and the smartly swift pace of the play entertains where the script cannot. A betting person may very well spend an evening at this horse race and feel as if he or she has broken even or perhaps come out a little ahead. Through October 20. Frenetic Theater, 5102 Navigation, landingtheatre.org. — JG

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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
Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman