Playwright: Lisa D'Amour. At: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. Phone: 312-335-1650; $20-$73. Runs through: Nov. 7
In Lisa D'Amour's dramatic universe, there are two kinds of people: planners and drifters. And in her play's American suburbwhich could be in Detroit, or notthey co-exist next door to one another: long-time settlers Mary and Ben have worked hard to pay off the mortgage on their now-shabby residence and accumulate the furnishings necessary to a comfortable life. Neighbors Sharon and Kenny, however, are newcomers, a young couple looking to make a fresh start following a stretch in drug rehab. At first, the fledgling pioneers strive to mimic their stable mentors, but when it emerges that Mary has a drinking problem and that Ben is now unemployed, both households begin to reconsider the rewards of delayed gratification against the attractions of living for the moment.
So how does a neighborhood go to seed? The tract homes built cheaply following WW II are privy to an abundance of clichés purporting to explain their reputation as breeding grounds for discontent lurking beneath placid veneers, the current source of malaise being citizens who isolate themselves like medieval nobles hiding from plague within walled communities, vainly attempting to shut out hostile influences, in defiance of the salvation allegedly derived from shared burdens.
Despite the serious questions it raises, D'Amour's premise has all the makings of a situation comedy. There's even a drunk scenethat standby of 1950s farcealong with extended recitations of heavily-symbolic dreams and the bizarre street names characteristic of open-box-add-water subdivisions to escalate the atmosphere of dislocation. "You're at zero!" carols Sharon, "and anything is possible"
Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose, in other wordsnowadays, a grim reality for increasing numbers of disenfranchised planners more likely to find in D'Amour's analogies reaffirmation of their xenophobia. Under Austin Pendleton's workmanly direction, however, Laurie Metcalf and Ian Barford do their familiar nervous-ninny and big-lug turns as Mary and Ben, ably supported by Kate Arrington and Kevin Anderson as their anti-materialistic nemeses ( the modern counterpart to the "damned hippies ruining the country" of earlier socially conscious comedies ) .
The real stars of the show, however, are Kevin Depinet's scenic design, reflecting the subculture where a backyard hibachi ranks above a second bath towel in consumer-ethic importance, and Josh Schmidt's incidental score, which marches us out to Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" ( with Broadway In Chicago's Rock of Ages, that's twice in one week ) .