I cannot think of two plays that might be more different than “Detroit” by Lisa D’Amour and “The Velocity of Autumn” by Eric Coble, both works by relatively new, but definitely rising and shining, playwrights.
“Detroit,” the season opener at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre (through Oct. 6), and “Autumn”, which is the season opener at Arena Stage (through Oct. 20), march to the tune of different drummers and rhythms, with different concerns and ambitions. The productions are physically different and treat the audiences to different views and viewpoints, literally. “Detroit” is, in some ways, a circus in which the elephants and clowns have escaped together, wreaking havoc. “The Velocity of Autumn” is more of a chamber work, a two-character play in which rueful, sometimes bitter-and bitter-sweet rise to the surface to do battle with here-and-now contemporary anxieties and fears.
Different the two plays are, and that’s as it should be, but they are also bold examples of playwrights dealing with the way we live and connect — or not — now. Not so oddly, the two are also often very funny, even if the laughter gives you pause and sours the echo of the last giggle. More importantly, to my mind, both are electric and powerful examples of why—in a world increasingly experienced through the magic filter of a plethora of gadgets and digital toys—we still almost urgently go to the theater, not, God forbid, because it’s good for us, but because it holds up a mirror to life in the hands of gifted artists, playwrights, designers and actors. What happens and how things happen and move in front of us at performances of these plays are every bit as right now as anything we access through the apps on our devices, on our phones, computers and pads.
In “Detroit,” playwright Lisa D’Amour, who is part of PearlDamour, an Obie-award winning interdisciplinary performance company with Katie Pearl, is chronicling, in high-dudgeon, low-comedy, angst-ridden and kinetic fashion, the societal crumblings that have occurred in the wake of a still wounded national economy, particularly those affecting the younger middle class, made up of those who once worked but now are hanging by their fingernails — and of those who completely derailed into drug-filled anarchy.
Which is to say we give you Mary and Ben, who own a house in a slightly decaying suburban development just outside of trembling Detroit, and their new neighbors, the antsy, hyper-ventilating Sharon and Kenny, who moved into a relative’s house next door, after, they say, having met and fallen in love in rehab. Mary and Ben have invited have invited Sharon and Kenny over for a barbecue, a telling little almost obligatory social gathering.
Ben and Mary are in dire straits: she works in a law office, he’s just lost his job at a bank, but says he’s working day and night building a website offering financial advice. Sharon and Kenny are something else again—they have no furniture, and apparently subsist on junk food, but they’re rich in flaky, lightning-like energy and give off a kind of stormy anything-can-happen, half-sexy, half-mordant vibe. They have a kind of freedom—to completely implode, flee, reach out, sing and dance, travel to the forest or to ruin, theirs or anyone else’s. They’re a kind of naked, made-up mystery.
Director John Vreeke has staged the goings-on like a disjointed parade—things fall apart, nobody gets to where they’re going, the clowns are constantly stepping on nails, hurting themselves and each other. Much of this—the clashes between Ben and Mary’s attempts at normalcy with Sharon and Kenny’s almost rock-and-rollish anarchy—is funny, but it’s done against a background, where we –the audience—cannot escape the flying debris. The designers have put two sets of chairs front and back, with the stage—the two back yards and flimsy-appearing homes—in the middle. Every now and then, the houses are flaked and patterned by traveling videos played on their exterior and serenaded by stormy and discordant music.
It’s a comic tragedy in some ways. You can see how the anything-goes, barely contained dance of Sharon and Kenny undoes Ben and Mary, who put up a fight but are drawn to them, nonetheless.
You’ve got a quartet of terrific actors, especially Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey as Sharon, who combines an appealing, puppy-sexy way with the pain of someone being eaten alive by electronic impulses. Danny Gavigan makes a good mate for her—patient, confused, dazed and jumble, while Tim Getman acts the part of a man fraying before our eyes. Emily Townley keeps trying to keep her head above water through all this. It’s like she can handle almost anything except that incoming tidal wave that’s forming not so far away. But then, the struggles of the two couples are on display almost every day in our travels, our news and blogs. Things fall apart in real life. In this play, which seems like a tale told of real life in another country but looks like a familiar street.
Woolly—in its staging, in its environmental lobby works and in all this — continues to be Woolly, amazingly edgy, right here and quite a bit ahead of the game, our forward-looking theater pied piper.
By contrast, “The Velocity of Autumn” seems less problematic. It’s easier to look at the characters, hearts and mind, problems to solve, secrets to reveal. But the more you stay and the longer you listen, the closer it gets to being a risible, long-lasting memento you’ll carry with you.
It sure sounds a little crazy: Alexandra—an elderly woman whose children want to take her out of her brownstone in Brooklyn and put her into a nursing home—resists by threatening to burn down the house with an impressive array of Molotov cocktails. All it takes is the flick of a lighter, which she holds firmly in her hand.
We first see Alexandra sitting snugly in an easy chair in a cluttered living room, the door to the stairs barricaded, the cocktails in evidence, a room full of books and old records. There’s a big window where her son, Chris, can be seen clumsily trying to climb the tree and get in, scaring her and him half to death.
And so it goes. Chris, who’s been absent for years, is on a mission of reasonability, but he doesn’t have a clue what’s really going on. Old secrets, old wounds, older loves and resentments, losses and memory churn through the air like wounded birds who can speak. Chris is a failed artist, whereas his mother was an artist who painted abundantly.
This is material that could quickly and easily turn maudlin and—the critics’ satan sin— sentimental, but it doesn’t. First, because director Molly Smith lets the play—no intermission, 90 minutes—flow along with ease as well as urgency. Second, because Coble is a terrific writer, he treats his character with a combination of tough love, affection and halting respect and honesty.
Third and, probably most importantly, are Stephen Spinella as Chris and Estelle Parsons as Alexandra. Spinella makes rueful humor and a spindly awkward clumsiness sources of charm, just an edge away from panic. Parsons is, as most know, a theater treasure, who was most recently in “August: Osage County,” a terrific gift for actors. She is also remembered for her Oscar-winning role in the film “Bonnie and Clyde.”
Parsons’s Alexandra, raccous, angry, resentful—“I just want to be left alone. I’m good at it.”—could get on your nerves. She’s not warm and fuzzy, but she has a gift that she hoards and treasures, and that’s what it’s all about. It’s about art as well as people. It’s the gift that is in danger, the ravages of lost memory.
Things happen here that happen only in the intimacy of theater. The feelings engendered in our presence make their way into ours, and the words lodge our in memory. In this play, it’s about parents and children, mothers and sons, and some of us remember right then and there.