nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
February 20, 2010
There's nothing like dark humor to drive home a serious point. Clybourne Park, a beautifully structured drama by Bruce Norris, unmasks racial bigotry when a white couple sells their home to a black family. It is to Norris's credit that he manages to balance dialogue and subtext, respect and intolerance, personal loss and community vigilance. The premise is gentrification, but Norris bares much more. He peels away layers of propriety with acuity, subtlety, and boldness until we're left with a dirty joke and a dead body.
Loosely based on Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, Clybourne Park begins in a snug little white community that is less ideal than initially meets the eye. There is much loss behind the facades. Some of it is personal, but a good deal can be chalked up to sensory loss: the characters don't see or hear one another. Nor do they feel each other's pain. Rather, characters ask questions without listening to answers, impose solutions where they have not been sought. There is a touch of the absurd, except the situations and dialogue appear too familiar to be so. This is one of the play's strengths and the source of its humor. However, don't go in prepared for a comedy. In Clybourne Park, what white characters think of blacks and black characters think of whites is fairly stereotypical. But Norris's treatment of the subject is focused, deliberate, and tight. He uses unusual restraint in releasing key information about his characters, raising the dramatic ante as he goes. His dialogue is crisp and specific. In one exchange, Bev, the wife who is moving, suggests that the couple that bought their home might be a perfectly lovely family, to which Karl, the community's representative bigot replies, "That's not the point." Indeed.
The play begins in 1959 in the home of Russ, a smart but emotionally repressed man, and his wife, Bev, who keeps a watchful eye on Francine, their black maid, who is finishing some last minute packing for their move on Monday. They are interrupted by a series of visitors. First, Jim, the local pastor, stops in—apparently at Bev's invitation—to discuss a painfully personal issue that Bev and Russ have not been able to face. The polite conversation comes to a heady pitch when Karl and his wife, Betsy, arrive. They are there not to say goodbye, but to discuss the community's reaction to the new black owners. Before the conversation reaches total absurdity, Albert, Francine's husband, arrives to drive Francine home. Karl lassos the black couple into answering hypothetical questions about their interest in skiing and choice of grocery stores, which Albert summarizes neatly for the group: he wants to know how we'd feel "livin' next to white folks." You will have no trouble discerning where everyone stands at the end of Act I.
Jump ahead 50 years to 2009 for the beginning of Act II, a wonderful parallel to the first hour. The same house is bare and graffitied, the neighborhood has gone through some sorrowful times but is on the verge of a comeback. The new owners, Lindsey and Steve—a wealthy white couple intent on replacing the current house with a McMansion—sit with a ditsy attorney (Kathy), who is related to Bev. Also present is a zoning bureaucrat (Tom), and a black couple (Kevin and Lena) who are related to the couple who first moved into the house and now represent the interests of the neighborhood. The group is reviewing the zoning laws in response to a complaint from the community. A workman (Dan) periodically interrupts as he preps the property for Monday's demolition. Here, as in Act I, decorum reigns until Steve, unaware of how inappropriate he is, crosses a line, causing civility to dissipate. There is no turning back. The play ends, as it began, with the ghost of a problem hovering within the walls of this house, the problem which prompted the sale in the first place.
The cast is excellent. They all walk a fine line between civility and chaos. Crystal A. Dickerson is especially good at demonstrating the delicate balancing between the competent yet compliant maid, Francine, earning a living in a white world, and the take-charge wife of good-natured yet somewhat clueless Albert, played with ease by Damon Gupton. With one look, we know she wears the pants in her family. As Lena in Act II, she is prim and polite in trying to gain the floor at the meeting, and she is hilarious once the barriers drop and she can let loose. Christina Kirk gives Bev, the housewife of 1959, a sad aura of "a woman of no importance." Although middle class, she is frivolous, uninformed, lacks curiosity and sensitivity, and lives with her head buried deeply in the sand. In Act II, Kirk's character Kathy, the lawyer, is educated. But Kirk expertly shows how the law degree is more than sufficient in her world. She is still frivolous, uninformed, and insensitive. Frank Wood delivers a finely-tuned detached husband. As Russ, he suffers his wife's idiocies, buries his resentment toward his neighbors, but cannot completely camouflage a nagging sadness, especially when Brendan Griffin's priest, Jim, arrives to console him. Next comes Karl, the play's overt bigot played by Jeremy Shamos. He barrels through without tact or self-consciousness, bringing considerable humor, bitter as it may be, to the front. Annie Parisse is convincing as Betsy, Karl's deaf and pregnant wife. This character is probably the least deaf of all the characters. At least she tries to understand what the others are saying. Her pregnancy is a reminder of change and renewal as well as the barely-spoken tragedy plaguing the house.
Director Pam MacKinnon adeptly integrates simultaneous conversations and keeps the actors moving at a brisk pace. Daniel Ostling has designed a period set dominated by its bold wallpaper: plump pink flowers on a green background. Ilona Somogyi has created appropriate costumes. Allen Lee Hughes adds mood and drama with his lighting, and John Gromada, sound designer, has chosen the right song, "I'm in Love with You," to start the production.
Clybourne Park is an ambitious drama. As many times as race has been discussed, this play still has something to add to the discussion. It is layered and nuanced. It is well-crafted and thought-provoking. This is an important play.