Motor City Madhouse

Whatever its strengths or weaknesses as drama, Leon Chase’s The Last Carburetor (Access) clearly creates theatrical history: It’s no doubt the first play to ever make metaphor out of a 1970 Plymouth Barracuda. One can only imagine what Ibsen would have done with it, or the meaning Chekhov might have wrung from a ’71 Dodge Charger.

Indeed, muscle cars are sorely lacking in the theatrical canon. Chase tries to insert his with a working-class family drama set outside Detroit. Patriarch Doug is a former steelworker now reduced to mopping floors and moping about his absent wife. Son Josh works as a bounty hunter—”skip tracing” he insists it’s called. Daughter Ayla is off at college, embarrassed by her Midwestern white-trash family. Keith, the son who made good, has just returned from San Francisco, where he suffered a nervous breakdown, tossing his girlfriend over and his laptop into the bay. The Barracuda sits unseen offstage, a four-wheeled version of the malfunctioning family.

Keith serves as the play’s focal point. His inauspicious return begins with a night spent in a ditch near the family’s home. His breakdown has left him in a hyperactive quest for both the true nature of reality and a deeper understanding of his past and family. Because of his computer expertise, he likes to analyze the underlying systems of life—down to the atomization of all activity. He returns unaware of his father’s misfortunes, but still able to feud with his brother Josh—a prototypical Michigan redneck who cleans his shotgun in the house. (The gun introduced in the first act does indeed go off in the second.) Keith also discovers his old girlfriend Karen waitressing at the local diner. Because of their earlier romantic unhappiness, her feelings about Keith’s return are painfully ambiguous.

That’s only part of Chase’s plot, which, while ambitious, suffers from what seems like three families’ traumas. (Others: Ayla’s Vietnamese American boyfriend meeting her Vietnam vet dad; the mysterious nature of mom’s disappearance; Karen’s own mental struggles.) Though the overloaded script plays a bit sluggish, Chase does show promise—he writes with heart and a nice feel for engaged language. Actor Jeremy Schwartz overdoes Keith’s tics, but he successfully captures the character’s depth and confusion. Paul Witte’s Josh rings truest, a “downriver” Detroiter if there ever was one—though director Susanna L. Harris’s no-frills production forsakes the atmospheric Michigan accents all these characters would speak with. Here’s hoping that, next time out, Chase strips down the plot and soups up the dramatic engine.