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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Clybourne Park and A Raw Space

Also see Tim's reviews of The Scottsboro Boys, Bachelorette and The Mousetrap

Clybourne Park
Erika Rose, David Ingram and Julia Gibson
Photo: Mark Garvin
Clybourne Park is a play that starts with an intriguing premise and proceeds to explore that premise with insight, compassion and startling humor. While Bruce Norris' play (last year's Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama) doesn't quite live up to its hype, it'll still give you a lot to think about.

Clybourne Park is a tribute to, and an unofficial spin-off from, a landmark of American drama: Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. In a crucial scene in Hansberry's 1959 play, a white man named Karl Lindner visits the Younger family and, on behalf of his Community Association, offers this black family money to keep them from moving into the all-white (and fictional) Chicago neighborhood of Clybourne Park. In act one of Norris' play, we see Karl again, just after his unsuccessful visit to the Youngers' house. Now he's visiting the white couple who have sold their home to the Youngers, and again he tries to prevent the deal from being finalized. But while this household may seem a picture-perfect image of 1950s conformity at first glance, there's trouble brewing. The husband is simmering with anger at everyone he sees; he's still troubled by a family tragedy that no one else wants to discuss. The wife is trying so hard to be everyone's friend and to avoid conflict that she's unprepared when a real crisis occurs. And their black maid feels patronized, but she's not in a position to complain about it. When Karl raises objections to the real estate deal, and a local minister joins in, hidden resentments begin to bubble over.

Act two of Clybourne Park takes place in the same house, but half a century later, in 2009. Now the home is run down, and a white family is moving in and planning renovations. But the Community Association—now a racially mixed group of young professionals—wants to have a say about the house and how it reflects the community's history. The insensitivity of the past has been replaced by a sensitivity that ends up stifling free conversation; everyone takes so much care to avoid being offensive that nothing gets done and nothing substantial gets said. When these people finally stop talking past each other and say what's really on their minds—about politics, economics, and race—things get dangerous. Sparks fly, and so do some off-color remarks. And the homeowners of Clybourne Park find out that, while they've come a long way in some respects, they've still got a long way to go before they can truly connect with each other.

Clybourne Park covers a lot of ground. Act one is filled with sly satire and some stirring dramatic segments, while act two turns surprisingly funny and raunchy with some sexual and racial humor. But the pieces of the plot fit together a little too easily to make the play completely satisfying. Some of the cultural references in act one (like Karl's observation that only white people go skiing) seem too cute, inserted merely so act two can make a "my, how times have changed" reference to the same subject. And while the drama in act one is interesting, it never becomes riveting; it gets cut off before it can go to the next level. Clybourne Park makes some salient points about human nature and how racial issues are discussed (and avoided) in America today, but it makes its points more through its skillful construction than through memorable characters.

Under Edward Sobel's taut direction, Clybourne Park isn't boring for a moment. And the seven-member cast shows its versatility by playing vastly different roles in each of the acts. Most of the actors make their best impressions during the dramatic moments of act one, especially David Ingram as the tightly wound husband, Julia Gibson as the superficial wife, and Ian Merrill Peakes as the obliviously racist Karl. And Erika Rose makes the most of two meaty roles: in act one she's the reluctantly restrained maid, while in act two she's a business professional who gets aggravated when she doesn't get to have her say.

Clybourne Park is too manipulative and inelegant to be a modern classic like A Raisin in the Sun. But it's still very good—a thought-provoking play that has a lot to say about some things that rarely get said.

Clybourne Park runs through March 25, 2012, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Ticket prices range from $29 to $48 (with group discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, online at www.ardentheatre.org or in person at the box office.

A Raw Space
Keith Baker and Anette Michelle Sanders
Photo: BRT Staff
Playwright Jon Marans' work was last seen at Bristol Riverside Theatre last season in Old Wicked Songs, a play that was subtle, well-crafted and intelligent. Now Marans has a new play at BRT, A Raw Space—and it's everything Old Wicked Songs wasn't. A Raw Space is a tedious, obvious mess, a play full of ridiculous dialogue, a dumb premise, and four astonishingly unlikable characters.

Here's the plot: Susu (Anette Michelle Sanders) is a publicist married to Mark (Keith Baker), a past-his-prime architect who has hit a creative roadblock. Susu is interested doing the P.R. for Rod (Jack Koenig), a flashy architect on the rise who has no problems saying "I'm the best." Rod is married to Brenda (Madi Distefano), who was a good friend of Susu's until they had a falling out seven years ago. Now Susu wants to stroke Rod's ego and inspire Jack to get his creative juices flowing, so she proposes a contest in which Jack and Rod will compete to design the interior of Jack and Susu's Manhattan apartment.

It's a bad idea that leads to arguments, jealousy, duplicity, and infidelity—none of which is intriguing or surprising. The women are manipulative saboteurs, while the men are preening egotists. There's a lot of embarrassing sex talk, most of it coming from the sixtyish Baker, an unconvincing lothario who at one point gazes at a pair of structural columns and actually says "here you sit like two giant hard penises." Sadly, the show doesn't get any wittier than that. Marans also hits the audience over the head with clunky metaphors and imagery. For instance, Rod (whose name is used for another unfunny phallic joke) uses clichés to describe the end of his marriage: "the whole structure collapsed ... a wrecking ball ... the foundation wasn't deep enough ... we built our marriage on sinking sand." Yeah, we get it already.

Susan D. Atkinson's direction is bland; the scenes have no excitement or authenticity. Some scenes seem to start in the middle of other scenes, making it momentarily unclear what's going on. Somber, new age piano music is played at a low volume during scene changes, practically begging the audience to nod off. Only Roman Tatarowicz's sleek set design sustains any interest, although his furniture looks uncomfortable. And Ryan O'Gara's lighting is effective, showing the colors of the apartment changing based on Susu's whims.

It's painful to see the talented actors in this show being humiliated as they spout awkward dialogue and perform the least sexy love scenes imaginable. No one gets out of A Raw Space with their dignity intact—and that includes the audience.

A Raw Space runs through February 19, 2012, at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Ticket are $32 to $45, with discounts available for students and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-785-0100, online at www.brtstage.org, or by visiting the box office.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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