Lisa D’Amour travels to the recession-hit heartland for Detroit

Downtown darling D’Amour explores unemployment, neighborliness and addiction in a timely new drama at Playwrights Horizons.

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Photograph: Zack Smith


Congratulatory messages were filling Lisa D’Amour’s voice mail box 18 months ago, and she couldn’t figure out why—until one mentioned that her play Detroit had just been named a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Although the top honor went to Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, it was still an unexpected seal of mainstream approval for an experimental artist whose work is usually found far off Broadway and at site-specific locales. But it’s one D’Amour embraces as Detroit makes its belated New York premiere—following productions in Chicago and London—at Playwrights Horizons, starring David Schwimmer.

“Never did I think of myself as someone who would be considered for that award,” swears D’Amour, 42, whose only official Pulitzer communiqué arrived in her physical mailbox weeks later. “It said something like, ‘We’re happy to inform you that you were a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. You should be very proud of this achievement. Thanks, Columbia University.’ I’m actually not positive where that letter is right now.”

D’Amour, hipster stylish in a denim skirt and black New Orleans Saints tee, may sound a tad unassuming about the honor, but then she never saw Detroit as an artistic milestone. “I wrote this play in a couple of months, read some of it to my husband and thought that it would be presented in the venues I’ve always worked in,” she says. But around that time, Polly Carl, a friend working at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, approached D’Amour about writing something for the company. She sent Detroit, and the play debuted there in 2010. (A rumored Broadway transfer never materialized.)

The tale of two couples who forge a tenuous connection—based on proximity and ennui—Detroit is a fierce and surprisingly funny exploration of the 21st-century American Dream, as humane and quirky as D’Amour’s previous work. While stable Ben and Mary (Schwimmer and Amy Ryan) cope, respectively, with a layoff and booze, their lives threaten to implode and explode as they get to know new neighbors Kenny and Sharon (Darren Pettie and Sarah Sokolovic), who are fresh out of rehab.

“I had in mind a play like this for a while, that had to do with a weird idea of my really conservative uncle and his wife suddenly moving next door to my really troubled uncle and his wife. I was interested in this opposites-repel-and-attract idea,” says D’Amour, who divides her time between New Orleans, where she grew up, and Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. “In New Orleans, you have people from really different socioeconomic backgrounds living next to each other. You’re always interacting with people who are really different from you. I love that.”

Detroit isn’t set specifically in the Motor City, but in a seen-better-days “first ring” suburb outside a medium-size city. “But I can’t think of another city name that has so many different kinds of resonance,” admits D’Amour. “You think about the rise and fall of the auto industry, about a city that is decaying; you also think about a city that’s trying to reinvent itself.”

Previously, D’Amour had been produced at downtown mainstays such as HERE and P.S. 122. She received an Obie Award with frequent collaborator Katie Pearl for Nita & Zita, about reclusive 1920s showgirl sisters, and their eight-hour performance installation, How to Build a Forest, was seen at the Kitchen last year. Her knack for the elaborate and the personal appeals to director Anne Kauffman, who takes over for Austin Pendleton for the Off Broadway production. “Lisa’s work is both epic and intimate all in the same moment,” says Kauffman. “She writes fables. This play is very personal and detailed, but you can overlay the essence of our country and our country’s issues.”

For D’Amour, who bought a house in New Orleans three years after Hurricane Katrina struck, relationships are key, in life and onstage. The years before she wrote Detroit involved frequent trips there to help family and friends. D’Amour’s brother was the first person back in his neighborhood, and her parents temporarily lived in a FEMA trailer after selling their nonflooded house and buying a flooded one to fix up. “I was on the ground floor watching that city figure itself out again,” she says. “It took forever for some of the aid programs to kick in, so people started doing it themselves. So I have this strong sense of what it means to look to the people in your life. I feel inspired by what people can imagine about their lives.”

Detroit is at Playwrights Horizons through Oct 7.

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