Two suburban couples are having a neighborly cookout when Detroit, pictured, opens. It’s a familiar scene, but this one is rife with tension. The more affluent pair, Mary (Tina Parker) and Ben (Ian Steck), are having financial troubles occasioned by the economic downturn, but are keeping up a brave face; the poorer couple, Kenny (Jeremy Schwartz) and Sharon (Jenny Ledel), are newlyweds who met during rehab, and have few expectations from life. There’s a sexual tension in the air (even a same-sex attraction, as you later find out), but it all has the patina of Leave It to Beaver, but its reality is closer to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

This is the kind of subversive dark comedy that is Kitchen Dog Theater’s speciality, and they have a cast well-suited for the task. Parker is Dallas’ resident master at the tightly wound woman unraveling before our eyes in a drawn out ballet of exquisite pain, but she’s got an able protege in Ledel, who’s feathery frame belies volcanic emotional tumult. Schwartz and Steck keep up with them every step along the way as the luxuriate in Clare Floyd Devries’ inventive set and Tim Johnson’s precisely timed direction. As far as plays about how the stressors of modern life can drive us to the brink, it’s as sharp and rewarding as you’ll likely find.

Another show that deals with how mental illness manifests itself in destructive ways is at Theatre 3. Assassins is a puzzle: Perhaps Sondheim’s most accessible score — it’s basically a series of folk ballads about wannabe presidential assassins — but no hit songs and many lyrics that don’t quite work. An edgy subject matter (“Come see mentally disturbed murderers portrayed comically in a carnival atmosphere!”) isn’t new to Sondheim — Sweeney Todd, about a serial killer in Victorian England, is still our greatest musical — but the diverse elements don’t really gel in this mounting.

Still, performances by Terry Dobson as the sad, crazed loner Sam Byck; Jason Kane as the narrating “proprietor;” and Marisa Diotalevi as housewife and would-be gunner Sara Jane Moore deliver so much nervous energy, you can overlook a lot of its flaws.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

Detroit at The MAC, 31210 McKinney Ave.; through Oct. 26. Assassins at Theatre 3, 2900 Routh St.; through Oct. 27.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 4, 2013.