Clybourne Park Review: White Update of Raisin In The Sun
It is one of the most moving scenes in American theater, that moment in “A Raisin in the Sun” when Walter Younger, originally played by Sidney Poitier, tells Karl Lindner of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association that he and his (black) family are moving into their (white) neighborhood, that they can’t be bought off.
Lorraine Hansberry’s play ends shortly afterwards on a hopeful and inspiring note.
“Clybourne Park,” a new play by Bruce Norris at Playwright’s Horizon, audaciously takes up where “Raisin” left off, first in the immediate aftermath of the house’s purchase and then 50 years later. You need not know the older drama, widely considered one of the most important American plays ever produced, to appreciate “Clybourne Park,” which, while unsurprisingly a lesser work than Hansberry’s, is far from being merely derivative. Largely a comedy, “Clybourne Park” is superior to other current fare with which it can reasonably be compared – subtler, shrewder and less self-righteous in its dissection of race relations than David Mamet’s “Race,” for example, and more sophisticated in comparing two eras half a century apart than “The Pride.”
In what is surely a wise choice, Norris does not present the Younger family on the stage. Instead, the one character snatched from Hansberry’s 1959 play is Karl Lindner, who pays a visit to the house in question, which is still occupied by its previous owners, a middle-aged couple named Bev and Russ who are in the process of moving out. Karl believes there is still a way he can stop the sale, if he can get Bev and Russ to go along with him. But the couple, who continue to reel from a family tragedy (the death of their son), have other things on their mind. And so, it seems, does the play: Karl is only one of the seven people in the house this particular day, and we are more than half-way through the first act before we even learn the purpose of his visit.
Another of the seven is Karl’s wife. If Karl is no less oleaginous a figure in “Clybourne Park” than he was in “A Raisin In The Sun,” he is at least more fleshed-out, less one-dimensional, and his wife is exhibit A: She is pregnant, her earlier pregnancy resulting in a miscarriage. She is also deaf; he communicates with her in sign language. Karl makes the same arguments for excluding a “colored” family from the neighborhood that he made in “Raisin” – although their absurdity is heightened here and they are mostly played for laughs – but he also makes one that wasn’t in the original: The families who live there will abandon the neighborhood one by one, and property values will decline to near-worthless; “once you break that egg, Bev,” he says, “all the kings horses, etcetera.”
This, as we see in the second act, turns out to be prophetic – with a twist. It is 50 years later, 2009, and in the living room of the same house, now run-down, are seven completely new characters. They are played by the same actors as the first act. So Karl (Jeremy Shamos) is now Steve and his pregnant wife Betsy (Annie Parisse) is now Steve’s pregnant wife Lindsey. They have just bought the house in what was a neighborhood “in decline” and is now gentrifying. They want to raze the house and put a larger residence in its place. But they have received a petition from the neighborhood association, now comprised mostly of African-Americans, objecting to their plans. The gathering is an attempt to work out their differences.
My recounting of the two acts may make “Clybourne Park” sound too pat in its ironic symmetry, but that is not the experience of watching the play. In part this is because much of the time is taken up with what seems at first to be irrelevant filler – debates over which city is the capital of Morocco and why things from Naples are called “Neopolitan,” petty bickering, light bulb jokes, chit-chat, often overlapping. I was particularly exasperated by how long it took me to figure out what was going on in the second act; the characters kept on interrupting the group conversation to answer their cell phones while those awaiting the end of the calls engaged in small talk.
Now that I have had a chance to think about the play, though, I appreciate all that Norris packed into it, even the plot lines (the son’s death) that I can’t connect to anything else, and especially the start-and-stop, simultaneous or throwaway conversations. As directed by Pam MacKinnon, they help make what might otherwise be too-broad satire seem like insight: In the house in 1959, Bev has a black maid named Francine whom she calls her “friend” and in the very next breath says to her face “I mean she is just a treasure.” Later, after a bitter debate with Karl, Bev tells Francine’s husband tearfully that she would be “so honored to have you and Francine as our neighbors, and the two children.”
“Three children,” the husband corrects.
This works better as a throwaway line than as a punch line.
The passage of 50 years is a rich opportunity for any actor, and the cast here makes the most of it even when their 1950’s personas fall a bit too close to caricature. The stand-outs here are Frank Wood as the foul-mouthed grieving Russ, and Crystal Dickinson both as Francine the maid of 1959 forced into a resentful subservience and as Lena the proud homeowner of 2009; in both roles, she’s given a few lines that are unnecessarily revealing of her true feelings (we could figure it out without being told), but, again, they are written and directed as throwaway lines, so less harm is done.
“Clybourne Park” is as different in tone from “A Raisin in The Sun” as any hip 21st century comedy would be from a 1950’s kitchen-sink drama. It is more diffused, less powerful. It is also both entertaining and thought-provoking. Has the seemingly homogeneous collection of nuclear families of the 1950’s really been transformed into the multicultural communal hug of the 21st Century? Notwithstanding the different rhetoric, do people like or understand each other better than they did? Bruce Norris asks us, lightly, to consider the nature – or perhaps the myth – of community.
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Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris
at Playwrights Horizon
Directed by Pam MacKinnon
Scenic design by Daniel Ostling, costume design by Ilona Somogyi, lighting edesign by Allen Lee Hughes
Crystal A Dickinson as Francine/Lena
Brendan Griffin as Jim/Tom/Kenneth
Damon Gupton as Albert/Kevin
Christina Kirk as Bev/Kathy
Annie Parisse as Betsy Lindner/Lindsey
Jeremy Shamos as Karl Lindner/Steve
Frank Wood as Russ/Dan
Run Time: 2 hours with 1 intermission
Ticket prices: $65
Through March 7th.
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