Also see Susan's review of Little Shop of Horrors
Clybourne Park, the play by Bruce Norris receiving its Washington premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, demonstrates that a play can consider uncomfortable truths and still be hilarious. Norris takes his inspiration from Lorraine Hansberry's pioneering 1959 drama A Raisin in the Sun, but pushes it in surprising and disquieting directions.
In Hansberry's play, the matriarch of a struggling African-American family uses her late husband's life insurance to buy a house in the white Clybourne Park neighborhood of Chicagoraising the objections of a resident named Karl Lindner, who offers to pay them more than the value of the house if they don't move in. The first act of Norris' play considers the situation from the other side of the coin, observing the owners of the house, Russ (Mitchell Hébert) and Bev (Jennifer Mendenhall), preparing to move to the suburbs as they try to cope with a heartache that gradually becomes understandable. They don't especially like Karl (Cody Nickell), the intrusive neighbor preoccupied with real estate values, and his pregnant, deaf wife Betsy (Kimberly Gilbert). Meanwhile, the local minister, Jim (Michael Glenn), tries his best to be cheerful and reassuring, and none of the white characters can figure out how to maintain a conversation with the domestic worker, Francine (Dawn Ursula), and her husband, Albert (Jefferson A. Russell).
Ah, but that was a long time ago, right? Things are different now. Norris returns to the house 50 years later, in 2009, for the second act. Now Clybourne Park is an established African-American neighborhood, but the house itself has fallen into ruin and a young white couple (Nickell and Gilbert again) want to buy it and make major renovations. As negotiations continue between the prospective buyers and the representatives of the homeowners' association (Ursula, Russell), with the assistance of lawyers (Glenn, Mendenhall) and a handyman (Hébert), the civility breaks down and all sorts of animosity start bursting out. It begins with a joke that offends everyone, for a variety of reasons, and doesn't end until someone uses a word that can still shock when spoken onstage.
Director Howard Shalwitz understands how to manipulate the constantly shifting balance among the characters, and he's working with actors who understand the nuances of their characters, both the public side and the part they don't like to expose. James Kronzer has designed another set that speaks volumes, both in its tidy heyday and its later decrepitude.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company