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Clybourne Park

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Christina Kirk, Jeremy Shamos, Annie Parisse, Brendan Griffin, Damon Gupton, and Crystal A. Dickinson.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

It's a shorter road from A Raisin in the Sun to Race than you may imagine. But whether the instigator is the more even-tempered Lorraine Hansberry or the incisively incendiary David Mamet, a theatrical discussion about the races and racism in America seldom takes the easy route. That's unquestionably true of Bruce Norris's new play on the topic, Clybourne Park, which just opened at Playwrights Horizons. It may draw its inspiration from both Hansberry's and Mamet's work, but resembles them only in its daring and its genius - its voice, which is as frequently riddled with laughs as with loathing, is entirely its own.

As for what that voice says, don't expect to pin down any specific ideology. As with his last play seen in New York, The Pain and the Itch (2006), its target isn't so much any specific idea as it is their always-flawed proponents. Here, as there, it can be boiled down to, approximately: say-everything, do-too-much liberals that are too busy helping others to realize the damage they're inflicting. The sympathetic cock of the head can be heard and felt in every line of dialogue: Norris doesn't hate these people, he just hates that they present their own hate as love. And that gives him endless ammunition.

That he appropriates the titular neighborhood and the borderline-sadistic homeowners' association from Hansberry is not accidental, but it's almost incidental. The Youngers are never mentioned directly, and spoken of indirectly only in passing, disconnected tones. The pieces are yours to assemble or leave in the box as you wish - the picture they form may provide more context for a story that oscillates between the first act's 1959 (the year A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway) and the second act's 2009, but are required for neither the copious enlightenment or entertainment that Norris and his director, Pam MacKinnon, have planned.

It all begins in the style of a Leave it to Beaver–like sitcom, projecting a view of domestic bliss that can't survive even a momentary glimpse of sunshine. Russ (Frank Wood) and his wife Bev (Christina Kirk) are preparing to move out of their home, aided by their maid Francine (Crystal A. Dickinson) and her husband Albert (Damon Gupton). There's the expected complement of kooky friends and neighbors: Jim, a priest (Brendan Griffin); Karl (Jeremy Shamos), and his wife Betsy (Annie Parisse), who happens to be deaf. And as each appears and establishes himself or herself within this world, it's within a solid cone of lightness: We always want to believe the best in others.

It doesn't last. Karl is terrified that the black family about to move into Bev and Russ's house (the supple, homey design is by Daniel Ostling) will drive down property values and raise trouble for everyone, and implores the couple to reconsider. He's doing it for the greater good, Karl insists, and don't Bev and Russ owe that to the neighborhood? But they aren't so sure that the debt they're supposed to repay is at all a positive one, and perceive - not without reason - that Karl's at-the-ready anger can be directed well below merely the color of someone's skin.

At first, the second act seems to reverse the polarity. The neighborhood has blossomed, and is now where the young married couple Steve and Lindsey (Shamos and Parisse again) want to start their own family. For them, though, this means renovating the house - something the new homeowners' association, especially the foremost black couple (Dickinson and Gupton), aren't too keen on. Property values are still a concern, after all, but now there's also the little matter of history, which some consider far more valuable than two new well-meaning whites down the block.

Damon Gupton, Crystal A. Dickinson, Annie Parisse, and Jeremy Shamos.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

But Act II is not, as it may first appear, retribution for the whites' pre-intermission malfeasance. It's a continuation of Norris's argument that intolerance begets intolerance; a demonstration of how one theoretically well-intentioned power grab can lead to another; and how what we may consider an absurd justification for discrimination for one group gains in outward validity when uttered by a representative of another. In fifty years, at least one black family has learned all the tricks, and is no longer too afraid or too ill-equipped to use them to get what they want. These days, everyone is an aggressor.

Norris communicates this in ways as subtle as Bev's underhanded attempts to dump off on others a chafing dish she doesn't want, as well in ways as obvious as a second-act joke-telling contest that's all about who can best insult (and best be insulted by) a series of increasingly offensive jokes. Yet every instance derives naturally from the tension surrounding these seven people, which builds within each act and across the play as a whole. You never doubt, as you easily could, that these would all react just this well - or, as is more frequently the case, just this badly.

Much of this is thanks to MacKinnon's sparkling direction, which plays no favorites, and the cast of rigorously detailed comic actors. Only Kirk displays any real difficulty - neither the soon-to-shatter June Cleaver of the first act or the acid-outlooked Ally McBeal of the second come easily for her. But Shamos and Parisse are spectacular in their roles, the former gleefully controlling his under-the-surface slime and the latter a comic dream as two women unable to communicate for very different reasons; Wood is quietly touching and scarily unpredictable as a grieving father on the edge; and Dickinson and Gupton are deadpan perfection on both sides of the condescension sword that's wielded so often.

You never sense Norris brandishing it, however. He never suggests that any of these people are relics to be mocked or victims to be pitied. The good and the evil can, and always have been, found in any time - it's the perspective of which is which that makes all the difference. The two become almost indistinguishable as the play and the characters' uneasy peace unravel, and passing particular judgment against anyone for any reason is never possible for long.

Ultimately, Clybourne Park emerges as neither full-scale warning nor steaming satire, but a reminder that status never stays quo forever. The dream it chronicles is indeed deferred, as per the Langston Hughes poem that gave Hansberry her play's title, but it's not equality: it's post-racialism. For Norris's characters, the playing field may have finally been leveled, but the attitudes are even rockier and colder than ever. Were they not so determined to live life on their own ironic terms, they'd be inhabiting a grand tragedy rather than one of the season's insightful, enlivening comedies.

Clybourne Park
Through March 7
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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