CHELSEA — In “Detroit,” Lisa D’Amour’s examination of social and economic instability in the wake of the Great Recession, there’s a lot of concern about dreams — the ones you have while asleep, as well as your goals and aspirations — and about sorting reality from illusion. Vivid dreams are described and their symbolism probed. One character says she has trouble differentiating between her dreams and waking life. Another recalls a memory in great detail, then wonders aloud if the event really happened.
There’s also concern with the ephemeral nature of the American dream, writ large. When it’s a bank that really owns your home, and a seemingly secure job can vanish with no warning, the rungs of the social ladder get very rickety.
So come the two couples in “Detroit,” currently receiving an assured production by Apollinaire Theatre Company. The two are in different tax brackets, but each desires the security that a place in a postwar suburban housing development is meant to confer.
Ben (Stephen Libby) and Mary (Becca A. Lewis) appear at first to be financially and socially secure. He was laid off from his job as a loan officer, but sunnily aims to start a financial consulting service; she’s a paralegal. When they invite the neighbors over for a barbecue, she serves caviar and slices of heirloom tomatoes from Whole Foods. But as their anxiety becomes more apparent, it’s clear these delicacies are merely social signifiers of ever-diminishing significance.
Kenny (John Dylan Greene) and Sharon (Courtland Jones) are less comfortable. Reformed drug addicts, they’re fresh from rehab and new in the neighborhood. Kenny works in a warehouse, he explains during the awkward outdoor dinner party that opens the play; she’s employed at a call center. When they take a turn barbecuing for their neighbors, they offer Cheez Whiz and Cheetos. Troublingly, their story about how they wound up together never quite seems to make sense.
As the extent of their poverty is revealed, it takes on a creepy tone. Sharon talks about coming home from rehab to “stuffed animals covered in puke.” Their windows are ominously covered from the inside by bed sheets. Weeks after moving in, they have no furniture and share one all-purpose towel. After Mary sneaks a peek inside their house one evening, she reports to her husband that Kenny has only one suit, “hanging like a carcass in the closet.”
But these newcomers quickly become a dark mirror of their seemingly secure neighbors. It becomes increasingly unclear if Ben and Mary are headed away from, or closer to, the bleak image of working-class life (and substance abuse) embodied by the folks next door.
Mary’s drinking problem gives her unwelcome common ground with Sharon. Ben, who is quick to offer tips he picked up from a financial self-help book, is about to reach the end of the money from his severance package. “One more month and you’ll be just like me,” Kenny says to him, in a less-than-reassuring burst of bonhomie.
Director Danielle Fauteux Jacques, also the artistic director of Apollinaire, is really on her game here. “Detroit” is a very literary piece — it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 — and the cast handily navigates its motifs and thematically dense digressions. This is an almost perfectly measured ensemble performance, complete with one or two challenging elements of staging, which Jacques and company pull off niftily. (Be forewarned, there’s also some very real looking vomiting.)
A nicely realistic set by Mark DiGiovanni accounts for the passage of time and for the impact of a key event late in the play, and Andrew Duncan Will’s sound design gently conjures the lawn mowers and police sirens of a not-quite-affluent suburb.
Lewis is a wonder as Mary, cleanly juggling repressed emotions that hop around from insecurity to muted discontent to relief at finding a new friend. When she tries to resume dancing after witnessing something unsettling at a backyard party that has gotten out of control, it’s a priceless moment of comedy and stifled outrage.
Jones, too, is in complete command of a complicated character. Sharon is a foul-mouthed over-sharer who is quick to cry, but when her earnest overtures misfire, it’s easy enough to empathize with her.
Libby plays Ben’s slow burn with careful awkwardness and subtle humor, though his boiling-point moment is not wholly convincing. As Kenny, Greene is fully believable as a genial neighbor, but chooses not to offer a glimpse of the darkness we suspect is within. (Rick Winterson, who appears for one talky scene as a former resident of the neighborhood, seemed on press night to be searching for his footing.)
All the characters in “Detroit” pine for a sense of community they feel has vanished. Late in the play, Ben muses that the land on which the housing development sits must once have been wilderness. He’s begun to realize that he and his wife have found themselves in a wilderness of a different sort.