This is an extremely funny play, in spite of the implicit subject matter: suburban racism (in 1959) and even a non-violent version of ethnic cleansing (when the same neighborhood gentrifies 50 years later), and even the specter of far-flung war crimes. In spite of all that, it's a great American comedy of manners: wobbling gracefully, as long as it can, on top of a world full of woes. And it telescopes the whole epic struggle for civil rights to the present day, and to the absolute point of absurdity: where every modern protest march has been boiled down to consist of an army of one. There sure are a lot of those tiny, tiny demonstrations, though, in the modern second hour.
Still, you might catch yourself thinking (as I did) that that act two is a little unnecessarythat, after a subtle, brilliant first half, and after intermission, an hour's worth of awkward racial jokes (each one an increasingly wrong-headed attempt to 'break the ice' in 2009) is just playwright Bruce Norris' way of padding out a one-act into a full-length play. And, it's true, act one (set in 1959) is much more powerful. Or, at least, it's much easier to have perspective on something that happened a long time ago. But if you take the time to figure it out, act two might look pretty powerful too.
It makes a kind of good sense, to put the two halves together: comparing the "before" and "after." The "before" (in this case) being "before the civil rights movement," and the "after" being 2009, that magical time when the next generation decides it's finally got everything figured out, once and for all, and doesn't have to sit still for anything.
In act one, Mark Anderson Phillips and Nancy Bell are a sort of textbook example of the "Father Knows Best" type of middle-aged parents. Except that he seems to be suffering from what we now call depression, and she's engaged in a perky-but-full-fledged struggle to bury the past and get on with living. After a lot of very funny dancing around their problems, it all turns very ugly, indeed. Both Mr. Phillips and Ms. Bell are amazing, going through the whole process.
It turns out he's still grappling with a family tragedy, as they pack up to move out of an inner-ring Chicago suburb on the eve of the Civil Rights era. Both Mr. Phillips and Ms. Bell are intensely intriguing, putting on the affable "can-do" attitude until they're forced (by a minister and a politely racist neighbor) to confront their situation, and the impending sale of their home.
Sounds hilarious, right?
But, really, it isnot the tragedy, or tragedies, but the way people go to such extremes to put on a mask of propriety. And then, on top of that, there's the horror-story manner in which the truth does gradually emerge. It's so tricky and bizarre, under those 1950s facades, that you really must see this one. Timothy Near directs and, even if it had just been a one-act play, that first act would still be breathtaking.
In act two, we find the house has changed considerably (it's now 2009), and white people are moving back in again, with a whole new kind of "can-do perkiness." But this is not entirely pleasant to the sellers, who (this time around) are black. The whole play is double (and even triple) cast, and Tanesha Gary and Chauncy Thomas are great as a housemaid and her husband in act one, and busy modern professionals in act two.
The whole second act does tend to make people my age look pretty awkward and superficial and pretentious, even as they "celebrate their differences" (which, in this case, means waving their grievances in each other's faces every chance they can get). Is there a middle-ground in behaviors? Between sweeping everything under the rug till everything bursts into flames, and just "letting it all hang out"?
Clybourne Park, with that before-and-after set-up, suggests we've given up the old sense of propriety (which, obviously, didn't work very much in your favor if you weren't white). And now, everything's out in the open, and politesse has been traded for a "stand-up comedy" style of communication, where we can all blab the "great unspoken truths," because (of course) just anybody can be a stand-up comedian. Right? Am I right? Then why do I feel like crying?
The two halves of the show make for a great study in how we get along, and why so many people think they can just "go for the jugular" these days, perhaps as a haughty way of puncturing what seemed to be our parents' suburban phoniness, before we really knew how complicated our own lives could ever get. That brutal honesty and total exposure just doesn't leave us with any social padding anymore; and now, a kind of adolescent sneak-attack seems to lurk around every corner. Even the walls of that perfect little home, 50 years later, bear the scars.
Michael James Reed and Shanara Gabrielle are the neighbors (in act one), just as terrific as the rest. And Eric Glide seems like the one actor who lucked-in to the perfect set of truly balanced characters, out of all of them, until the unexpected ending. In just the span of a quick costume-change, Mr. Glide goes from a polite and steady 25 mph to pretty much the speed of light.
Winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize and inspired by Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, Clybourne Park has been held-over through November 18, 2012, at the Emerson Studio Theatre at the Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts, 130 Edgar Rd., Webster Groves, MO, on the campus of Webster University. Some free parking is usually available two blocks north on Lockwood. For more information (and varying show times) call (314) 968-4925 or visit them on-line at www.repstl.org.
* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the US.