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Backyard Barbecues Make a Combustible Setting in Zoetic Stage's Neighborly Dramedy

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Americans are right that the bonds of our communities have withered, and we are right to fear that this transformation has very real costs." -- Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone

In 21st-century America, we don't know who our neighbors are. Property lines loom large, tenants and homeowners are more reclusive than ever, and technology has created bubbles of self-absorption and self-sufficiency around every one of us. The thought of ringing the adjacent doorbell to borrow a cup of sugar is an alien concept; why talk to a stranger when you can use an app to deliver what you need?

Yet we're closer to these people, geographically, than anyone outside our immediate family. Playwright Lisa D'Amour penned her 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist Detroit with this theme in mind, envisioning two pairs of next-door neighbors who, for varied motivations, opt to communicate rather than isolate -- a decision that proves both revelatory and perilous.

See also: Hedda Gabler at Miami Theater Center: A Bold, Bloodless Reimagining

In the play, which Zoetic Stage premieres regionally this weekend at the Arsht Center, the youngish Kenny and Sharon (Matt Stabile and Betsy Graver) are new to their unnamed neighborhood, which could be Detroit or anywhere else that weedy starter homes have begun to outnumber well-manicured idylls. Their house is still oddly bereft of furnishings, and their backstory is sensitive. They met in drug rehab and tend to say the strangest things. Are they perfect for each other, or are they perfect enablers?

Ben and Mary (Chaz Mena and Irene Adjan) seem to be more put-together -- that is, until you scrape the enamel; then it's all rusted metal. Ben, who was recently laid off from his job at a bank, has been trying to launch his own business, while Mary has escaped into the bottle. Put these four together over grilled steaks, appetizer trays, hazardous patio umbrellas, and half-finished decks with creaky floorboards and you have a recipe for slow-building disaster in which resentment, regret, fear, and jealousy tie into that one central question: Just who are these people living 30 feet away?

"I read the play two years ago, and I was frightened," says Stuart Meltzer, who is directing the production for Zoetic. "And I find that when I get frightened of things I read, there's an attraction -- this goes into my -psychology now. And in the past, taking that kind of risk has been a reward for me artistically and for the actors and artists I work with.

"So when I read the play, I saw the demands of it," Meltzer continues. "I saw that the play had scary relationships and scary topics about the combustible American dream. It was a style of theater that was really volatile and very much like a charging train, and to me that was uncomfortable. And the more I thought about it, the more I felt it was really important to bring a play with that kind of style to the audiences of South Florida."

Crucially, though, the train takes a while to get moving. The way D'Amour's script reads, for the first few scenes it's more of a slow-chugging locomotive, building up steam -- and dramatic tension -- through a few benign mishaps in otherwise congenial gatherings. Hell doesn't break loose all at once; the fire just tickles the characters' toes every now and then.

"After that first scene, [these couples] never should have had another opportunity to come together," Meltzer says. "But something happens, and it snowballs. In each scene, it gets worse and worse and worse."

Meltzer says he didn't want to direct yet another "adults behaving badly" story -- like, perhaps, Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage, an overrated comedy with a similar character dynamic -- and he hopes to achieve this by tapping into the relatability of both sets of characters. "You're watching these people who are frighteningly real to us," he says. "We know these people, and that's what attracted me to the play."

For Stabile, his Kenny "knows where he's supposed to be and what he's supposed to be doing, yet there's this other thing, this demon, that keeps dragging him back. He's got an opportunity to have a brand-new life and really make this one count and to be what he's always thought he could be. Yet there are these tiny moments where the sand beneath your feet gives way, and then suddenly you find yourself rolling down the mountain again. I don't think that's an uncommon story."

Adjan sees another familiar character in Mary -- a person who requires control and doesn't know how to handle herself when it's wrested from her. "Mary is one of those people who likes everything just so, and she has a very specific idea of how her life should go," Adjan says. "So when things go differently or not according to schedule or when her husband gets laid off from work, I think people like her have a specific way of dealing with chaos. That's what makes her interesting."

It's best to dance around the exact developments of D'Amour's plot. But on the production side of things, Meltzer says to expect a towering set design encompassing the couples' two (markedly different) backyards. And in a delectable touch, his actors will grill actual meat on their characters' barbecues (good thing Morrissey isn't still in town).

It's a bit of sensorial immersion in a production that otherwise needs to stay a safe distance from its audiences. Because after all, getting to know your neighbors can be dangerous.

Detroit runs Nov. 7-23 at the Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Tickets cost $45. Call 305-949-6722 or visit arshtcenter.org.

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