David Schwimmer, Amy Ryan Ratchet Up the Anxiety in “Detroit”

Jeremy Daniel

There may be no more apt a city than Detroit in which to set a play about isolation and diminished dreams, as Lisa D’Amour has done with the fitful new American comedy that began performances last week at Playwrights Horizons.

“Detroit” stars David Scwhimmer and Amy Ryan as Ben and Sharon, a married couple adrift. He is newly fired from his job as a bank executive; she's a blossoming alcoholic. Into this picture come new neighbors (Darren Pettie and Sarah Sokolvic), recovering addicts fishing for stability who’ve moved into the home next door.

New friendship is as much a function of geography as anything else, and so the couple meet over a series of barbecues that fast become too familiar, wounding one another (figuratively and, to healthy comic effect, literally) while they boast of aspirations it’s doubtful they will ever fulfill.

John Cullum, the two-time Tony winner (“Shenandoah” and “On the Twentieth Century”), appears in the final scene to characterize the neighborhood’s long-descent from its post-war suburban promise and to shed light on lingering plot mysteries. “Detroit” opens Sept. 18.

In an article for its September issues, Playbill said Scwhimmer’s Ben could be the “rusting residue” of Ross Geller, his “Friends” character, “moved from NYC to the first ring suburb of a mid-sized U.S. City.” And in fact, Schwimmer's newest friends, needy, erratic and on the edge, are nothing like the “Friends” he once knew.

The actor, who last appeared on the New York stage in 2006’s “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” told Playbill that his first read of the play left him entertained, but “anxious.”

“I was ... aware of this kind of tightening in my stomach. I felt something was going on underneath the surface that filled me with a sense of terror and dread. It really speaks to this moment in American life. It taps into the national vulnerability.”

D’Amour’s play, originally produced by the Steppenwolf Theater Company, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In an open letter on the Playwrights Horizons Web site, the author recalled the country’s climate in 2009, the year she wrote “Detroit,” “the year that everyone you knew was getting laid off, or getting their salary cut or losing their health insurance.”

“For many people in 2009, to survive meant to imagine. I can't depend on this system, so who am I outside of it? What can I imagine on my own?” She calls that environment “The perfect conditions for a secret self to wake up and suggest that maybe it doesn't have to be so secret anymore.”

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