How will the world end: deluged in water or consumed in fire? Two visions of apocalypse are on display in a pair of new off-Broadway plays. Both come to New York from other theater centers (London and Chicago) trailing critical acclaim. Both are deceptively small-scale domestic dramas with larger portents. But only one really worked for me.
Nick Payne’s If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet (first produced at the Bush Theater in London) has the superficial trappings of an earnest TV family drama. The central character is Anna (Annie Funke), an overweight teenager who is being bullied at school and getting little support at home from her schoolteacher mother (Michelle Gomez) and a father (Brian F. O’Byrne) who is too busy writing papers on climate change to pay much attention to the stormy weather at home. The only real empathy or connection Anna finds is with her scruffy, itinerant uncle — played by Jake Gyllenhaal, with a mumbling authenticity and a flawless British accent in his New York stage debut.
Payne, a young playwright whose work has been much praised in Britain but little seen here, writes good, naturalistic, semi-articulate dialogue for this disturbed family. But the parental dynamics aren’t convincing: Anna’s father, with his professorial detachment, is too easy a target; her caring but clueless mother too vague a one. Then there is Michael Longhurst’s symbolic, high-concept staging. At the end of each scene, characters topple over pieces of furniture and throw them into a water-filled moat between the stage and the audience. At a key moment, rain pours down and fills the stage with water, and the actors spend the last few scenes wading ankle-deep in water.
The images are arresting, but their connection to the action is less clear. (Drowning family, drowning planet — am I right, sir?) As for that mysterious title, there may be a clue to its meaning somewhere in the play. But if there is I haven’t found it yet.
Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit (first staged at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater and a Pulitzer Prize finalist last year) also has a puzzling title. The play is set in a nameless suburb in a “mid-sized American city,” but there is no mention of Detroit. The city, I suppose, is now an all-purpose symbol for urban decay, but the play isn’t really about that either.
Two couples get together for a backyard barbecue. Mary and Ben (Amy Ryan and David Schwimmer, two more film stars slumming off-Broadway this fall) are homeowners in an aging suburb, full of primly landscaped, cookie-cutter homes that have seen better days. Their guests are a rootless, vaguely dangerous couple who just have moved in next door: Sharon (Sarah Sokolovic), a recovering drug addict who works at a call center, and Kenny (Darren Pettie), a warehouse worker with a vibe of aggressive, macho disdain.
Over the course of several scenes, which move back and forth between the two backyards (we never see inside their homes), the two couples develop an uneasy friendship. Beyond the suburban bonhomie is an unspoken tension, a sense of dislocation and disconnection from reality. Ben has lost his job as a bank loan officer and is trying to start up an oddly unfocused Internet business. Characters recount their weird dreams and suffer bizarre injuries on the decaying patios. Sharon, on meeting Ben, thinks he sounds British; he doesn’t at all. An unseen neighbor complains that one couple’s dog is messing up her lawn; there is no such dog. Even the offstage sound effects — a plane flying overhead, the chirping of crickets — are heightened and ominous.
These people’s lives seem to be spinning out of control and going nowhere at the same time. The wives plan a capricious camping trip together, but never make it to the campground. Kenny convinces Ben to join him for a boys’ night out at a local bar, but they have to call it off. The tension boils over in a drunken backyard bacchanal — and a conflagration that comes as a shock yet seems, in retrospect, somehow inevitable.
Detroit is a play about our current economic hard times — people thrown out of work and trying to resurrect their careers at Staples — yet a broader depiction of America’s decaying social fabric. It’s a bold, funny and original play that keeps taking surprising turns yet always seems to be headed downhill — an apocalypse for now.