Theatre in Review: Clybourne Park (Playwrights Horizons)
How many times in a season does a play speak so clearly to the moment in which we live? How many times does it happen in the sneaky, offhand, thoroughly original manner used by Bruce Norris in Clybourne Park? If you ask me, the last time it happened, a guy named Tracey Letts was in town.
Clybourne Park begins in 1959; we're in the home of Bev and Ross, in the Chicago suburb of the title. Actually, it won't be their home much longer; they're scheduled to move in two days. As Bev, who works hard at being breezy and funny, packs up their possessions, engaging in word games with Ross, who is engrossed in his National Geographic, subtle tensions begin to arise. They are exacerbated by the arrival of Jim, a minister, who makes a fumbling attempt at counseling Ross regarding an unnamed family tragedy. Trouble really arrives with the appearance of a local Rotarian named Karl Lindner, and if that name rings a bell, you're right -- he's the polite white racist who tries to buy an inner-city black family out of their new suburban home in A Raisin in the Sun.
That Bev and Ross' house is the fought-over (if never seen) domicile of Lorraine Hansberry's classic is only the first of many twists. As everyone, including Francine, the family's black maid, and Albert, her husband, are drawn into an increasingly hostile discussion of segregation, Norris deploys a series of shocks and character revelations with a stunningly steady hand, deftly blending satire, acute social observation, and family secrets into a narrative of mounting tension. He doesn't divide his characters into moral categories; he lets everyone have his say, allowing each his unpleasant aspects. The achievement is so assured that, at the intermission, you find yourself worried that it can't possibly be topped.
And, at the beginning of Act II, those fears seem justified. We're in the same house, 50 years later. Clybourne Park is rebounding from its ghetto days and everybody wants back in. Lindsey and Steve, a young liberal white couple, want a home that's only minutes from downtown -- only thing is, they want to knock the house down, replacing it with an out-of-scale creation by a trendy architect. (Among other things, they're putting in a koi pond.) Opposing them, politely but firmly, are members of the neighborhood committee, led by Kevin and Lena, who are blackand lifelong residents of the area; Lena is a descendant of Hansberry's Raisin family. Conflict flares up only gradually: Norris lets everybody make small talk about all sorts of unrelated topics -- included their favorite European vacation spots -- at such length that you worry he's lost the dramatic thread. But all the chatter masks a deeply buried hostility that is just waiting to pop out and does when Lena quietly raises the issue of race. The talk turns defensive, then hostile -- and, in one of the more attention-getting scenes of the season, descends into a sulfurous exchange of racist and sexist jokes.
There's no question that Norris, a skilled provocateur, has plenty to say about the poisoned racial dialogues of yesterday and today. It's there in Crystal Dickinson's pitch-perfect sketch of a domestic who keeps a smile on her face only as long as it is strictly necessary. It's there in the way Jeremy Shamos, as Karl, patiently tries to explain that his community is open-minded -- after all, didn't they accept the Jewish grocer? And it's certainly there in Lena's description of unnamed economic interests that are threatening her home.
But Clybourne Park also hits another, possibly even rawer, cultural nerve. In its portrayal of, on the one hand, a conformist '50s culture fatally out of touch with any minority concerns, and, on the other, a modern world of squabbling, Balkanized interest groups, he has cast a light on why America may be as ungovernable as so many have begun to fear. The terms of engagement in our culture wars change over time, but the desire for battle never seems to fade.
This bleakly hilarious satire has been guided with an especially sure hand by the director Pam MacKinnon, who has assembled an exceptionally nimble company In addition to Dickinson and Shamos, Damon Gupton eloquently realizes both the overly ingratiating Albert and the supremely self-satisfied Kevin. Christina Kirk is wacky and sad as Bev, and sleek and tough as a real-estate lawyer protecting her clients' interests. Frank Wood invests Russ with an authoritative anger. I especially enjoyed the look of panic in Annie Parisse's eyes as Lindsey tries to stop her husband from telling a joke about blacks and prison rape. Brendan Griffin pulls off a hat trick as the unctuous, back-slapping Jim; a quietly aggrieved member of Lena and Kevin's committee; and the young man who is the source of Bev and Ross' unappeased anguish.
In addition, Daniel Ostling's setting is a vision of middle-class Eisenhower-era-domesticity in Act I (check out the chafing dish, the floral wallpaper, and the "Oriental" lamp), and, in Act II, a convincing urban ruin, the wallpaper slashed and covered with spray paint. In both cases it is lit by Allen Lee Hughes with his usual unfussy skill. Ilona Somogyi's costumes nicely contrast the more formal looks of the past with the contemporary characters' carefully wrought "casual" styles. John Gromada's sound design combines period pop tunes with the offstage sounds of excavation.
That last effect is needed because, in Act II, the yard is being dug up, an activity that yields a trunk containing, among other things, a letter that returns us to the personal tragedy that has haunted the house for five decades. It provides proof, if any is needed, that Clybourne Park is not merely a brittle satirical sketch; there's a real sadness underneath, an awareness that our inability to understand each other can have devastating consequences. It's probably the most accomplished play I've seen all year.--David Barbour