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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Clybourne Park Lives Up to Its Publicity
in Ace Production at Seattle Rep

Also see David's review of Damn Yankees

Clybourne Park
Marya Sea Kaminski and Suzanne Bouchard
After originating to cheers Off-Broadway, Clybourne Park won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, received raves in L.A., San Francisco, London's West End and at Chicago's Steppenwolf, then finally opened to further huzzahs on Broadway on April 19, just days before the Seattle Repertory Theatre opened its production. The play is Bruce Norris' response to Lorraine Hansberry's fifties classic A Raisin in the Sun, and for once a show lives up to all the hype, and then some, as directed with panache by Braden Abraham, and performed to perfection by an ace cast.

Clybourne Park takes place in 1959 just as A Raisin in the Sun did, in the suburban house the Younger family plan to move into. A middle class white couple, Bev and Russ Stoller have sold their house under market value to Lena Younger, due to a family tragedy that occurred there (which the Youngers are not aware of). As they pack and prepare for the move, with the assistance of their African-American maid Francine and her husband Albert, neighbor Karl Lindner and his very pregnant, deaf wife Betsy arrive. Karl is the same character who, in A Raisin in the Sun, represents the Clybourne Park Community Association in trying to convince the Youngers not to move to their segregated neighborhood. His clumsy efforts to do this have failed, and his social ineptness stirs the pot in his visit with the Stollers, who are also entertaining a bemused neighborhood priest. We flash forward to the same home in 2009, though Clybourne Park is now a largely African-American neighborhood undergoing gentrification. Lena Younger's namesake great niece, her husband Kevin, and the Lindners' grown daughter Kathy are meeting with Lindsey and Steve, the imminent buyers of the former Younger home, and their openly gay lawyer to discuss planned modifications to the house, which go against terms of preservation of the now deemed historic neighborhood. Norris' play is the most skillfully woven blend of comic and dramatic elements I have ever experienced in the theatre, and his coda, which hauntingly jumps back to the era of act one, reveals a piece of the story which proves as informative as it is devastating.

Norris' storytelling allows a great showcase for the actors who (in all but one case) take on two very different characters apiece. Suzanne Bouchard's Bev, all Donna Reed sunniness and awkward fifties liberalism at first glance, is, under closer scrutiny, a bundle of raw nerve endings, masterfully enacted, and Bouchard does equally fine work in her act two guise of the rather brusque and businesslike Kathy. Peter Crook is equally fine as the fiercely unhappy Russ, a nice change of pace from his act two role as an earthy construction worker. Marya Sea Kaminski is explosively funny as the deaf Betsy tries to comprehend the dynamics going on around her, then perfect at catching the supercilious, patronizing (and also pregnant) Lindsey. Darragh Keenan is exactly right as the totally clueless, endlessly nattering and utterly annoying Karl Lindner, allowing subtler shadings into his role as the contemporary home-buyer Steve. Playing African-American couples then and now, Teagle F. Bougere and Kim Staunton more than anyone convey the changes (and certain lack of change) in racial relationships over a half century. Aaron Blakely's Jim and Tom are both more observer characters than actively involved in the plotting of either act, but the actor acquits himself well, and Ashton Hyman as Kenneth, a character who only appears in the play's coda, offers an effective cameo turn.

Scenic designer Scott Bradley deserves a huge high five for successfully transforming his cheerful middle-class dwelling of act one into the bombed out looking, graffiti laden shambles it has become in act two. Constanza Romero's act one costumes are exemplary, with spot-on perfect fifties kitsch wonders such as Betsy's hilariously apt maternity outfit, a particular delight. Matt Starritt's sound design zeroes in on the changing musical styles of the eras.

Clybourne Park sets the bar high for other contemporary plays. Far from just being a "gimmick" show, it is a funny, tragic and invigorating theatrical event. How wonderful that we don't have to wait years after its Broadway bow for a Seattle debut.

Clybourne Park runs through May 13 at Seattle Rep, Seattle Center; $15-$70 (206-443-2222 or www.seattlerep.org).


Photo: Alan Alabastro



- David Edward Hughes



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