Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 19, 2012
Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris. Directed by Pam MacKinnon. Scenic design by Daniel Ostling. Costume design by Ilona Somogyi. Lighting design by Allen Lee Hughes. Sound design by John Gromada. Hair & wig design by Charles LaPointe. Cast: Crystal A. Dickinson, Brendan Griffin, Damon Gupton, Christina Kirk, Annie Parisse, Jeremy Shamos, Frank Wood.
The play's being just as potent now as it was then is no small achievement, especially given everything it and its production have been through during that time. Following the successful Off-Broadway run, Clybourne Park sailed off to the U.K., won last year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and then attracted more willing producers at L.A.'s Center Theatre Group, who brought the original cast and production (under Pam MacKinnon's direction) there intact. With some more aid courtesy of Lincoln Center Theater and producer Jordan Roth (stepping in following Scott Rudin's hasty exit), that mounting is the one that's landed on Broadway.
Just don't make the mistake of believing that that too-circuitous route means the play itself is not worthy of the attention. Like another hit this season, Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities, it courts theatregoers secure in their political affiliations; unlike that other show, however, it doesn't pander to them. All those who pride themselves on their inclusiveness and sense of racial equanimity, who are positive that their outlooks and attitudes about race in the United States cannot and should not be stretched, are Norris's prime target: Just when you're most sure you won't see yourself onstage, that's when he has you, and has you hooked.
The fierce, funny, and fractured lens Norris uses for this bewitching bit of theatrical alchemy derives from one of Broadway's all-time most influential plays about race. That would be A Raisin in the Sun, from which this work also derives its title: It's the near-Elysian location to which the Youngers aspire to move in order to take control of their dreary lives. But as it's examined here, a simple change of ZIP code is far from the solution it once appeared to be, something that means it becomes even more relevant to us.
What's right for those who are vacating the house into which the Youngers are moving is not foremost in his mind: After all, Russ (Frank Wood) and Bev (Christina Kirk) have their own problems and sorrows to deal with, ranging from the son who died a few years earlier under unfortunate circumstances to their declining relationship with the black domestic (Crystal A. Dickinson) they're giving up with the move and her husband (Damon Gupton), both of whom are, at least to Bev, essentially members of the family.
But communities are neither made nor broken so easily, as we see after intermission when the action shifts ahead 50 years. By 2009, the area has become largely black, and is seeing a resurgence of interest by the trendy whites who want to come in and make it their home, as well. In particular, Steve and his wife Lindsey (Annie Parisse) have bought number 406 with the intention of razing it and rebuilding it taller and, they insist, better. But neighbor Lena (Dickinson), who has her own connection to the Youngers, Lena's husband Kevin (Gupton), and the others (including lawyer Kathy, played by Kirk, and board member Tom, played by Brendan Griffin) aren't as convinced, lest this location's history and significance be lost to the wrecking ball.
What occurs within each act, and then across them, is a blistering excoriation of the lies everyone tells themselves in order to get along and get ahead. Karl's covert prejudice rears its head in the first act, when even he's not aware of the larger implications of the awful stuff he's saying. (His obsession with skiing, for example, and why he only ever sees men and women just like him on the slopes, is gloriously offensive.) But we see in the second act that everyone else is just as guilty: Things reach their frantic and harrowing apex when those assembled kindle a conflict over who can tell the most entertaining racist/sexist/homophobic joke. Defenses and offenses crumble as we see who these people actually are, what they think of each other, and what they're willing to say when their common sense doesn't intervene.
MacKinnon's direction is subtle but stringent, capturing all the nuances of interaction inherent in the two time periods, but never confusing them in either look, feel, or sound. (Daniel Ostling's excellent set, which transforms effortlessly from homespun to spun out, plays a crucial role; Ilona Somogyi's costumes and Allen Lee Hughes's lights are nearly as effective.) The acting is searing, precise, and brutally incisive: Wood is elegantly moving as a man secretly crippled by loss, Shamos suavely teases the borders of lovely-looking hatred, and Dickinson makes show-stopping dynamite out of ingredients as deceptively simple as a narrow-eyed glare in 1959 and the raunchiest riddle on tap fifty years later. But everyone is good, including Kirk, who's deepened her portrayal into a more robust picture of personally imposed cluelessness since 2010.
But Clybourne Park continues to work — and, one suspects, will for many years to come — because its underlying assumptions about who the most accepting are, and just how seriously they take their tolerance, always seem to be correct. Ask anyone in either time period and they'd all scream that no horrific words would ever escape their lips. And you'd believe those protestations just as easily as you do the anger and the resentment they reveal when they say them aloud. They've found niches within their social and cultural worlds, but haven't found satisfaction. Can't it be right there, in front of them all, in this house that has promised advancement and freedom for three generations of black and white alike? It can be, and it is. But Norris reminds us that you haven't a prayer of seeing it, or anything else, until your eyes are well and truly open.