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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Pulitzer Prize Winning Clybourne Park in New Jersey Debut


Brad Bellamy as Russ and Kate Goehring
New Jersey theatergoers are fortunate indeed to have Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park available to them in a new production which is as first rate as the highly praised production which played on Broadway just last year.

Cleverly conceived, Clybourne Park is based on and (in the first of its two acts) contemporaneous to Lorraine Hansberry's landmark classic A Raisin in the Sun. Norris brings us his depiction of the situation confronting the white sellers of a house in a white Chicago neighborhood (actually, Washington Park) which the black Younger family depicted in Raisin is attempting to buy despite a myriad of obstacles including the hard line resistance to integration of that neighborhood's residents. The only character from Raisin who appears in Park is Karl Lindner (Hansberry's only white character), the head of the neighborhood committee which is seeking to prevent the sale. The year is 1959.

Act two of Clybourne Park is set fifty years later, and depicts the conflict between the residents of the now black neighborhood and a white couple who have bought the Younger house and are seeking an exemption to the zoning laws in order to build a large house which would be disproportional to the other homes there. As the dispute escalates, racial tensions and animosities emerge. These still lurk below the surface of well intended individuals who would never think of themselves as being so much as racially insensitive.

In act one, Bruce Norris presents us with very richly drawn and individual characters who merit their own play. Particularly, the hurt and angry Russ and his wounded, silly and scattered wife Bev, the unhappy sellers of the house, are depicted with much depth and humor. The linking of their story with the events in A Raisin in the Sun gives the play an expansiveness which immeasurably enhances it.

Originally produced Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 2010, Clybourne Park won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize and the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play. Interestingly, the texture of the play is different in its current Premiere Stages production than it was on Broadway.

The Broadway cast brought a more complex and sympathetic interpretation to their roles than can be discerned in Norris' script. This could be result of their long engagement with these roles dating back to the play's production at Playwrights' Horizons. One of the pleasures of the Broadway Clybourne Park is that it reminded me of the difficult issues faced by "liberal" pro civil rights people in changing urban neighborhoods. However, the current production certainly clarifies Norris' point of view and likely will make the play more accessible to many audiences.

In the second act, the entire cast assumes new roles. Only in the broadest sense can it be said that the positions of the races are reversed. The dispute would not be intractable if Kevin, the white man who has bought the house, were not hell bent on expanding the footprint of the house in such a manner as to overwhelm the buildings surrounding it. However, as the buyer and neighborhood association representatives debate, civility gives way to hilarious acrimony as deep seated sensitivities and grievances rise to the surface, and what should be harmless, stereotype based racial insults are tossed back and forth. Any number of interpretations can be drawn from this situation. Thus, each viewer is likely to bring an individual interpretation to just where race relations stand and where they are going at the play's conclusion. And that is most appropriate, given the diverse threads in race relations in America.

Incidentally, the racial insults which are tossed around in the second act are less hilarious and more discomforting than they were in the Broadway production. This textural change seems to arise from the one in act one. Rather than being a "new" interpretation, a close reading of the play makes it seem likely that it is a restoration of Norris' original vision.

Director Wes Grantom has obtained a strongly integrated ensemble performance from an excellent, largely veteran cast. Brad Bellamy maintains our sympathy without softening Russ' hostile behavior to his wife. Kate Goehring convincingly creates the contrasting roles of his sad wife and Kathy, a sharp-edged real estate agent. Tim McGeever goes from being a stupidly reprehensible Karl Lindner to Steve, a smarter (but not as smart as he thinks), less reprehensible, home buyer with a sense of privilege. Danielle Slavick humorously portrays Betsy, Karl's deaf and clueless Swedish wife, and Lindsay, Steve's "smart" wife who is oblivious of the gap between her self-centered behavior and progressive self image.

Brett Robinson as Francine, Russ and Bev's exasperated maid, and Lena, a woman proud of the efforts of her great-aunt Mrs. Younger to become a home owner; Samuel Stricklen as Albert, Francine's agreeable husband, and Kevin, the representative of the 2009 neighborhood association; and Dustin Fontaine as Jim, a weak, hypocritical priest, and Tom, a city representative dealing with zoning issues (Fontaine has a third role in which supplies a coda to the evening that I will not reveal) make solid and important contributions to the play and ensemble.

The large, lived-in appearing, enveloping set has been designed by Joseph Gourley.

Clybourne Park is one of the best, and most timely and entertaining, recent American plays. It is receiving a finely performed, first class production in a theatre where no seat is more than about twenty feet from the stage. Premiere Stages maintains a top ticket price of $30 (with discount prices for seniors and students). You can't go wrong by visiting Clybourne Park.

Clybourne Park continues performances (Evenings: Thursday - Saturday 8 PM/ Matinees: Saturday - Sunday 3 PM) through July 28, 2013, at Premiere Stages Zelda Fry Theatre on the campus of Kean University, 1000 Morris Avenue, Union, New Jersey, 07083; Box Office: 908-737-7469; online: www.kean.edu/premierestages/.

Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris; directed by Wes Grantom
Cast
Russ/Dan…………………………Brad Bellamy
Bev/Kathy………………………Kate Goehring
Francine/Lena………………...Brett Robinson
Jim/Tom/Kenneth……………Dustin Fontaine
Albert/Kevin…………………Samuel Stricklen
Karl/Steve………………………Tim McGeever
Betsy/Lindsay………………..Danielle Slavick


Photo: Roy Groething


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- Bob Rendell



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