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UPDATED Detroit: Lisa D'Amour's Compelling Vision of the American Dream

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The set-up: At 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.

The execution: How they get here is both comic and tremendously sad. If the jagged pieces of D'Amour's puzzle don't fit together as smoothly as they should, if some of the pieces are missing, the overall picture, cleverly assembled by Catastrophic Theatre, is clearly in the unmistakeable 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, but Ben has lost his bank job, and only has a few more weeks until his severance package dries up. He keeps occupied with building a website to dispense financial advice in these depressed times. His library is filled with self-help books.

Slackers Kenny and Sharon (George Parker and Sara Jo Dunstan), a peg lower on the social-economic scale, have nothing. He works in a warehouse and can fix things around the house - like the bumpy sliding glass door 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. They rented the house next door through a relative, but strangely have no furniture. Fresh from drug rehab where they met, they eat ramen noodles and Cheetos because they can't afford anything else. 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 couple's back yards), the new neighbors insinuate themselves into Mary and Ben's lives. More secrets are revealed; strange dreams conveyed; and an atmosphere of rot drifts 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.

The awkward first BBQ morphs into more personal confessions. 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 grave.

In a wistful coda, original home owner 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 up 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' Mary goes unmoored and woozy with an empathetic awareness of the pain underneath the 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, responsible for some of Catastrophic's most atmospheric productions (Waiting for Godot, Endgame, The Strangerer, Bluefinger), smoothly translates Detroit's more cryptic moments into vivid stage pictures that clarify the open-ended metaphors. Editor's note: Catastrophic Theatre Artistic Director Jason Nodler directed these other plays for Catastrophic. Schulze acted in them.

The verdict: If we're left with a somewhat hazy theme and indistinct motivation, there's definite sharpness in D'Amour's individual depiction. Her vision of the American Dream, fully abetted by Catastrophic, will cut you. Detroit continues through October 18 at Catastrophic Theatre, 1119 East Freeway. Purchase tickets at catastrophictheatre.com or call 713-522-2723. Pay what you can.

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