Uncomfortable Truths Bubble to the Surface in Funny, Poignant 'Detroit'
(L–R) Renee Rogoff , Greg Snyder, Roman Reyes, Jessie Rankin and Bill Davis. Photo by Bob Toy.
Steaks and burgers weren’t the only things cooking at the backyard barbeques that brought two very different couples together in the School of Acting’s recent production of 'Detroit.' Uncomfortable truths about each couple and individual simmered just below the surface, and eventually reached a boiling point, as the play unfolded before audiences at 620 Sutter Street Theatre.
Comprised of just four student actors—professional actor Bill Davis also had a small but important role in the last scene—the cast, under the guidance of director Clark Houston Lewis, did a masterful job of slowly revealing more about their characters and turning up the tension. Equal parts hilarious and intense, Detroit took audiences on an entertaining, thought-provoking journey.
“The audience is the final, crucial step in the process of finding out what a show really wants to say,” remarked Lewis. “With Detroit we found deeper and more complex ideas every time we did it. The actors and crew did a phenomenal job of navigating all the tonal shifts between laughter and surprise and poignancy. It was a thrill for me to lead this truly talented group.”
Greg Snyder, Renee Rogoff , Roman Reyes and Jessie Rankin star in the School of Acting’s production of Detroit. Photo by Bob Toy.
Renee Rogoff was commanding as Mary, a woman with a forceful personality and a taste for the finer things in life whose overspending stresses out her mild-mannered husband, Ben, perfectly played by Greg Snyder.
“I’m a deadbeat,” he quipped, when asked by their new neighbors, Shannon (Jessie Rankin) and Kenny (Roman Reyes), what he does for work. Ben reveals that he was recently laid off from his job as a bank loan officer and is now building a website for a financial services business he plans to run from home. His decision doesn’t sit well with Mary. She expresses her dissatisfaction by taking snarky digs at her husband for things such as not letting her get a new coffee table or failing to fix their perpetually sticky sliding glass door. To numb her unhappiness, she drinks too much.
“Mary is a pressure cooker who’s trying to keep it together,” said Rogoff. “As an ensemble cast, it was interesting to explore the relationships we had with each other. How much space can you make for people who are so different from you? The play almost reads like a run on sentence, yet it is very much about specificity and not speed. I loved that there’s no star in Detroit—it’s like a quartet that can only hit that note together.”
In contrast to Mary and Ben, Sharon and Kenny appear to be blissfully in love and free-spirited, even though they’re broke and have few material possessions. Rankin brought Sharon to life with a bubbly, high-energy performance. Her perfect timing and delivery made her character’s penchant for blurting out random remarks and rambling stories all the funnier. During the first barbeque, she cheerfully announces that she and Kenny don’t have any furniture, a situation Mary quickly remedies by marching into her house and delivering her detested coffee table to Sharon, who graciously accepts it.
Reyes was also engaging as Sharon’s laid-back boyfriend Kenny. The pair claimed that they met in rehab and inherited their home from a relative. But as the play progresses, Kenny and Sharon keep changing their stories. Eventually, they relapse. And it becomes clear that they are as flawed and unhappy as Mary and Ben.
Greg Snyder and Jessie Rankin in Detroit. Photo by Bob Toy.
Renee Rogoff and Jessie Rankin in Detroit. Photo by Bob Toy.
Detroit touched on a number of themes most members of the audience could relate to, including the sometimes stifling and lonely existence of life in modern suburbia; the difficulty of trying to change; financial insecurity; and relationship problems.
The play’s simple but professional-looking set featured the facades of each couple’s home and backyard on either side of the stage. A blue sky studded with puffy white clouds stretched above the houses while a drop-down screen with aerial footage of an anonymous suburban neighborhood marked scene changes. The thoughtfully-curated soundtrack further enhanced the mood of the play. Thumping dance music in the climactic scene in which the four friends cut loose and party in a way that starts out fun but ends in disaster was especially effective.
As the party spins out of control, Shannon and Kenny light a “purifying” fire in Mary and Ben’s grill that spreads to their home. In the final scene, Mary and Ben stand before the charred rubble of their former house with Kenny’s uncle (Davis). He reveals the truth about his nephew’s unsavory past. But Mary confesses that she and Ben “enjoyed” him and Shannon. And judging from the rousing applause that greeted the cast after the play, the audience enjoyed both couples.