Lawrence Toppman

‘Detroit’ turns out to be a funny (kind of) place to visit

Christian Casper, Kim Cozort Kay, Nicky Jasper and Brett Gentile (left to right) realize there are limits to neighborliness in “Detroit” at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte.
Christian Casper, Kim Cozort Kay, Nicky Jasper and Brett Gentile (left to right) realize there are limits to neighborliness in “Detroit” at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte. George Hendricks

The audience (myself included) laughed aloud and often during opening night of Lisa D’Amour’s “Detroit” at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte Wednesday. But what kind of laughter was it?

Amusement at the odd antics of four people coming unglued in suburban America? Nervous acknowledgment of the fraying of the American Dream of home ownership and financial security, during the most class-divided period of the last 75 years?

For me, it was wry self-recognition at the well-organized, middle-aged guy whose world implodes when he’s laid off from a bank job. He’s drawn to the two genial young anarchists who move in next door to him and his status-conscious wife: If nothing matters, everything’s permissible. In the end, the older couple face profound loneliness at the center of their marriage. The laughter stops; the play turns poignant.

D’Amour doesn’t dig deep, though that’s not a big drawback in an absurdist comedy. The story speeds along for 90 intermissionless minutes, and director Kenneth Kay (who’s making his ATC debut) punctuates loosely linked vignettes with onstage freezes and the sound of a camera shutter. We’re getting Polaroids, not portraits.

Christian Casper and Kim Cozort Kay play Ben and Mary. He’s just lost his job and speaks vaguely of creating a financial consultancy online. She reinforces her self-esteem by buying caviar and special pink salt to entertain.

Into the house next door come Sharon and Kenny (Nicky Jasper and Brett Gentile). They have no possessions, few inhibitions, vague ambitions and a past that changes while they talk about it. But they’re so darned friendly and helpful that patio parties become the norm. (Chip Decker did the homey/tacky set.)

Mary finds a pal with whom she can plan escapes. Ben gets a buddy who can help him deal with a stultifying life. The interlopers get older friends who offer them advice, steaks, affection and a chance to wreak the chaos they carry with them as a turtle does its shell.

Jasper, who makes her mainstage ATC debut, tears up the joint with profanely cheerful monologues. The other three, all Actor’s Theatre veterans, have been cast for strengths: Casper’s button-down anxiety, Cozort Kay’s roars of discontent, Gentile’s suppressed strangeness. Charles LaBorde has a warm-hearted, explains-it-all scene toward the end.

Or, rather an explain-the-plot scene. He’s not part of the play’s sad optimism, which is a tribute to Janis Joplin’s declaration that “when you got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose.” D’Amour takes these characters to dark places, then lightens the sky over them, until there’s more to “Detroit” than laughter.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘Detroit’

A laid-off businessman and his acquisitive wife have their lives turned upside-down by new neighbors in this dark comedy by Lisa D’Amour.

WHEN: Through May 9 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Also 2:30 p.m. May 3.

WHERE: Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, 650 E. Stonewall St.

TICKETS: $26-31.

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes, no intermission.

DETAILS: 704-342-2251 or atcharlotte.org.

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