There are friends, and there are neighbors — but they don't always come in the same affable package, as David Schwimmer can readily attest these days while toiling over Detroit. Lisa D'Amour's new play — a Pulitzer Prize finalist — is running at Playwrights Horizons.
One of the world's better-known "Friends" — thanks to the decade of primetime he put in on the TV series by that name — Schwimmer has reached a point, and a play, in his career where his character can matter-of-factly admit, "We don't have any friends."
What "we" — Ben and his wife Mary (Amy Ryan) — do have are neighbors: Kenny (Darren Pettie) and Sharon (Sarah Sokolvic), a pair of sexy young recovering addicts on a fresh stretch of hope that long ago burnt out for the older pair.
"John Cullum has this great speech at the end of the play," Schwimmer is quick to note. "He's the owner of the house next door to where we live, and he talks about how the neighborhood's changed. We get a sense of history through his presence. "The recurring theme of the play is: What is a neighbor these days? Do you really have neighbors? Who are they to you? And what is the difference between a friend and a neighbor? It certainly seems — at least in this play — that our characters admit they don't have any friends and they don't even seem to know their neighbors. That kind of isolation, even within a community, is, I think, a natural byproduct of today."
In these tough financial times, Ben could be the rusting residue of Schwimmer's romantic Ross Geller, moved from NYC to the "first ring" suburb of a mid-sized U.S. city. A freshly fired bank loan officer, he's economically discarded, maritally numb and trying not to look like a deadbeat as he fumbles a financial website into existence. Mary, a paralegal and resentful breadwinner, tries vodka — a lot — for what ails her.
"We've got enough in the bank saved to give us, we think, a shot at configuring," explains Schwimmer, "but I think we're both highly aware that we've got about four months before things are really going to have to change in the way that we live.
"When I first read the play, I was entertained by it — I thought it was really funny — but I was also aware of this kind of tightening in my stomach. I felt something was going on underneath the surface that filled me with a sense of terror and dread. It really speaks to this moment in American life. It taps into the national vulnerability.
"Having read the play several times, I'm impressed with Lisa's writing — so natural, as if the dialogue is really coming at that moment. As people think it, they are speaking it, but when you read it carefully, you realize how deftly she is placing recurring themes. What happens to each character in the course of the play — again, in a subtle way — is revealing so much about the condition of how we all live right now.
"My character keeps laughing at how many people get physically injured in the play, for example. It's almost always done to great comic effect, but it's always the result of something malfunctioning. To me, it's another sign of the times. Nothing is built to last anymore. Everything's disposable, dispensable, cheap, probably bought in bulk."
Both he and Ryan are native New Yorkers and born-again residents, happy to be on stage here again after courting, respectively, Emmys and Oscars on the other coast.
Ryan makes no bones about what brought her back. "For me, it's always the writing," she admits. "Great writing will do it every time. I've been wanting to do a play for a long time, but nothing grabbed me as much as Lisa's play. Sometimes, when I read plays, I hope not to like them because they take so much out of you to do, but this one — ! The more that I turned the pages, the more that I knew I just had to do it. "It's wonderfully theatrical, but there's a great undercurrent of truth within that theatricality. I don't know Lisa well, but I don't imagine she set out to comment on where the country is at this point in time. But it so happens this play does do that."
Schwimmer hasn't been on stage here since his Lt. Barney Greenwald in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial six years ago; with Ryan, it's seven since her Tony-nominated Stella Kowalski opposite Natasha Richardson in A Streetcar Named Desire — a role she did exactly a year before opposite Patricia Clarkson at the Kennedy Center. That double-dose of Streetcar made it hard for her to get into lesser, more mortal works.
"A lot of the other plays I read, I've felt, ‘It's fine, but it doesn't feel theatrical. I could see that on TV. It feels small, more intimate, and not in a kitchen-sink kind of way. It just feels ordinary.' Lisa's play is so extraordinary. That's what lured me to it."
The play's title, contends Schwimmer, is metaphorical. "It could be any urban American city right now, but in particular 'Detroit' represents the fall of industry as well as the need to rethink and rebuild what we have taken for granted for so long."
(This feature appears in the September 2012 issue of Playbill magazine.)