Watching the first scene in Detroit, now playing through Oct. 7 at Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons, it’s hard to shake the feeling that something familiar is happening onstage. The scenery sketches a summery day on a patio behind a bland single-story house in a working-class subdivision. Two couples make polite small talk about their jobs, their health, their marriages. The house’s owners, Mary (Amy Ryan) and Ben (David Schwimmer), are readjusting to life now that Mary is the breadwinner; Ben lost his job at a bank and devotes his long days at home to launching an ill-defined financial-services website. Kenny (Darren Pettie) and Sharon (Sarah Sokolovic) met in rehab and just moved into the house next door.
The couples don’t have much in common except a palpable hunger for friendship. And as they swap platitudes and stories around a set of cheap deck furniture, you might think you already know exactly what’s about to happen. (You have seen Desperate Housewives, after all. And Weeds. And American Beauty.) Secrets will come out, marriages will be tested, suburbia will be skewered for knowing laughs. And you’d be pretty much right.
But Detroit has a few tricks up its sleeve, too. The best and most subtle is Lisa D’Amour’s graceful, unshowy script (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), in which deceptively simple snatches of chit-chat trace the outlines of rich, fully realized characters. The cast, as talented a foursome as you could want, relishes the words, playing with intonations and rhythms in ways that squeeze out unexpected jokes and insight. (Schwimmer’s comic timing is no surprise to anyone with a TV, but his gentle gravity is.) And then there’s a bold plot twist — we won’t ruin the surprise here — that brings the show to a climax earlier and more ferociously than you could expect. As a theatrical stunt, it certainly grabs your attention. But as a dramatic device, it’s a shortcut that ramps up the stakes artificially before the characters have had a chance to transform in any meaningful way. Letting them simply live, grow and change organically with each other without a canned catharsis — now that would’ve been really unexpected. B+
(Tickets: playwrightshorizons.org or 212-279-4200)