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Two couples tell one cohesive story in Detroit

Plus, Moving Poets present earthy, elemental art

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Lisa D'Amour's newest play, Airline Highway, opened last Thursday on Broadway after being one of the most heatedly discussed contenders in voting for the Steinberg Award, which recognized the best American play that didn't open on Broadway in 2014. Critics across the country were kinder to six other scripts that made the cut to become finalists, including the winner, Rebecca Gilman's Luna Gale. Perhaps the most frequent objection by my fellow panelists to Airline Highway was that D'Amour's previous play, Detroit, was stronger.

Now that Detroit has had its Charlotte premiere, continuing at Actor's Theatre through May 9, I can tell you they were right.

Detroit is less of a sprawling, cacophonous mess than Airline Highway is with its New Orleans setting, less of an attempt to do onstage what Nashville did onscreen. With its smaller core of characters, two couples living next door to each other, Detroit tells a more cohesive story.

Ben and Mary have lived in their suburban home longer than the new neighbors, Kenny and Sharon. As you'll easily surmise from your first glimpse of Chip Decker's set design, depicting the backyards and homes of the two couples, Ben and Mary are the more responsible, prosperous and solidly established family. While Ben and Mary exchange what-have-we-gotten-ourselves-into looks when they learn that their new neighbors met in rehab, we get early hints that they can also be imprudent and capricious.

Mary works as a paralegal, but Ben has been laid off at the bank after six years; he's hoping to set up a website and start a financial consultant business before his severance package and unemployment benefits evaporate. The patio door doesn't slide properly, Mary has problems getting the patio umbrella to stay up, and she has a scheduled rendezvous with a surgeon to remove a painful planter's wart on her foot.

So we might question why Mary would give away her coffee table as soon as Sharon tells her that they don't have furniture. And why is Ben tossing steaks on the grill for everybody while continuing to drag his feet on his start-up?

Nope, the budding friendship between the neighbors doesn't bring out the best in either couple. Kenny is working at a warehouse when we first see him and, bleaker yet, Sharon is serving time in a phone bank, responding to customer service inquiries. They're sufficiently ashamed of their home that they haven't yet taken down the bedsheets shielding their windows. When offered a beer to lubricate their steaks, both Kenny and Sharon shoot back in unison, "We don't drink!"

But as Sharon bonds with Mary and Kenny bonds with Ben, the admirable rehab resolves unravel. D'Amour's obliquity is more effective here because she never allows her focus to drift. There's just enough reference in the opening scenes to how neighborly relationships have been engineered out of existence by modern-day suburbias to frame the budding relationship we witness as a kind of test.

Adding to the subtlety of D'Amour's approach are the super-sized portions of comedy she serves up with some of her catastrophes. The misadventures of the umbrella and the deck that Kenny attempts to build in his backyard are almost slapstick when they fully flower. Yet they are emblematic of the flimsiness and disrepair of our urban societies when we look back at what we've watched.

With Kenneth Kay directing, immaturity is less likely to be perceived as the underlying cause of our protagonists' woes, for at least three of the four are beyond the 28-32 age range prescribed by the script. Unless you read it here (or at D'Amour's website), you'd likely presume that Christian Casper and Kim Cozort Kay as Ben and Mary are empty-nesters firing up their backyard grill.

Begging D'Amour's pardon, but I think the extra years enrich the comedy. Ben's complacency, befuddlement and drifting are all funnier in Casper's mellower mature mode, and Casper beautifully layers on a grudging forbearance toward his wife that has the true aroma of a vintage marriage. Kay's growing coldness and desperation toward her husband, her receptivity toward Sharon's youthful vitality in spite of her potty mouth, and her denial of her drinking problem all carry Mary past the threshold of a wilting idyllic marriage — all the way to full-blown midlife crisis. All of the cluelessness that both Ben and Mary exhibit toward the interlopers becomes bigger and zestier when it becomes generational rather than just a matter of class.

Sharon does most of the talking for her household, so it works rather well that Nicky Jasper falls comfortably into D'Amour's age range when she compulsively prattles away. Counterbalancing Ben's inertia and Sharon's angst, Jasper makes Sharon an almost irresistible optimist. Certainly the two women should go out camping — of course, it will be fun! Brett Gentile makes Kenny seem a little subdued and hapless as a husband when we first see him, but after the girls go away, we begin to discover that he's the loosest canon of them all.

Charles LaBorde appears late in Act 2 to explain what has befallen the two houses in a sobering cameo. One thing he cannot explain is how all that we've seen pertains specifically to Detroit. Notwithstanding her title, D'Amour never meant it to: her script describes the setting as "Not necessarily Detroit." Even if that disclaimer were in the playbill, it wouldn't prevent critics and theatergoers from complaining that there's a basic geographical disconnect between the playwright's title and her play.

So perhaps Airline Highway, delving deeply into New Orleans eccentricity and lore, was a response to such complaints. From what I've read and seen, the maybe-not Motor City is the better place to visit in D'Amour's world.

It's been over 10 years since we've seen a Moving Poets 6/15 anthology in Charlotte. The idea of compounding the Poets' multi-disciplinary approach by gathering six creators together to demonstrate it — along with actors, singers, dancers, instrumentalists, visual artists, etc. — proved to be every bit as exciting in 2015 at the funky Chop Shop as it was in 1998 at the moldering Carolina Theatre.

Opening the set of 15-minute miniatures, Wooguru's "Free Flow" was one of the most unique pieces Poets has ever presented. The Korean dancer-choreographer not only made it up as he went along, he accompanied himself by dancing upon a pre-programmed instrument, fashioned from junk, that lay securely — but not flat — on the floor of the stage. Then to shift moods, Wooguru sat down and bowed a cello before hammering and plucking it with his fingers even more impressively as the lovely Alyce Cristina Vallejo loomed in the background.

And how about a Hebrew double entendre/pun for a title? That's what Karola Lüttringhaus of the Alban Edved Dance Company gave us with "adam-mah.*" At times, we had a godly view looking down on this immersive piece that began with Luttringhaus and Rachael Crawford literally wallowing in the soil of the earth, outlining man's evolving relationship with its native soil as we proceeded to conquer and destroy the environment and each other. On a playing field shorter and narrower than a shuffleboard court, the whole audience gathered around to watch the suggestive choreography unfold, frequently participating both actively and passively in the sounds and actions of the piece under the dancers' directions.

It was earthy, elemental art you could see, hear, touch and smell.

(*Hebrew doesn't have uppercase letters, so "adam" and "Adam" are the same — only the word also means mankind. Tacking on "-mah" does a couple of interesting things. It either completes the Hebrew word for earth and soil, "adamah," reminding us that man is biblically from the earth or that the two words are from the same root. Just as likely, "mah" is intended as a word in its own right. It's frequently used starting a question, but can be question in itself: "What?" So it's not surprising that "adam-mah" ponders the question of "what is man?" while stressing mankind's eternal connection with the earth and its soil.)

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