The city is Detroit, the era our own, the setting an empty firehouse where Axel Buckman has holed up on October 30, otherwise known as Devil’s Night. While Motown’s discontents set the city’s abandoned buildings on fire, Axel gets a visit from his old flame, Susan Cadillac, then from her daughter Lilly, and finally from his neighbor, Henry Ford. Against the backdrop of a crumbling automotive industry, violent protest, and the ever-present threat that the firehouse itself will be set ablaze, these four characters make their own sparks fly.
As Axel, Jeff Mills oozes bad boy sex appeal, the kind borne of chronic infidelity and deception blended with deep and abiding affection. It’s no surprise that tree-hugging arborist Susan, played by Sage Parker, is at once incensed and weak-kneed at the sight of him. Their repartee is fast-paced and furious; within minutes of her first entrance, they’re tearing the clothes off each other.
Things get even more complicated when Susan’s adult daughter, the uptight banker Lilly (Lisa Sanderson) enters the picture. She has paddled her kayak up the Detroit River to rescue her mother, who turns out to have no interest in being rescued. They descend quickly into a comic reversal of roles. (“Brush your hair and pack your bags,” Lilly chides her mother sarcastically. “Do you have to pee?”). Things get even darker when Susan’s out of the room, and Lilly’s curiosity about Axel’s powers of attraction get the better of her.
As it turns out, Lilly’s really got the hots for Henry Ford (Paul Taylor), the bright young black man who has returned to his native city and purchased the property where Axel is squatting. Henry seduces Lilly by introducing her to the salt mines that lie beneath the fire station, and he paints a picture of a brighter future for Detroit, one in which power might be derived from a new source. The chemistry between these young lovers lacks the deep, believable simmer of Axel and Susan’s attraction, though Lilly’s got a litany of zinging one-liners.
In fact, every character in this play has a preternatural ability to zip right to the heart of the matter with clever, incisive language, a quality that detracts from Bedtime’s realism at the same time as it makes for an exciting ride. “Susan writes everything down twice: once how it really happened, and once how she wished it had happened,” Lilly remarks at one point, and indeed it’s as if the entire play’s dialogue arises from a cleverly rewritten version of reality.
“Why are abandoned buildings so erotic?” Susan muses. “They’re like sheer nightgowns,” Axel Buckman replies without missing a beat. “You can see right through to the fire inside.” Like a sheer nightgown, Bedtime in Detroit captivates and titillates, providing a peek at the fire burning beneath the surface of things.