Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Clybourne Park and Paris Letter

Also see Jeanie's review of R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe and Richard's review of Jerusalem and Man in a Case

A Razor Sharp Production of Bruce Norris Clybourne Park

I took another look at Bruce Norris' Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning controversial drama Clybourne Park, currently being presented by Center REPertory Company of Walnut Creek. This is a whip smart production with a superb cast. Director Michael Butler's presentation captures the rhythm and broad annotations of race relations still in this country. Clybourne Park is a shocking comedy where the playwright trains his satirical sights on the volatile subject of race and the anathemas controlling how we talk about it.

Clybourne Park features two groups of characters in two acts set in two time periods, 1959 and 2009, although all the action takes place in one northwest Chicago living room. It's about selling the property in the first act and remodeling the house in the second act. In the first act (1959) an African-American family is trying to move into an all-white neighborhood. Bev (Lynda DiVito) and Russ (Richard Howard), who are white, are about to move, under the strain of dealing with the death of their son, a Korean War veteran who killed himself in the house. They are willing to sell to the African-American family but their neighbors are very nervous about this new chain of events, especially Karl (Craig Marker), the spokesman for the neighborhood community. He believes property values will drop if African Americans move into the neighborhood. There is an awkward assist by Bev and Russ's pastor Jim (Timothy Redman) which does not help matters.

The second act takes place 50 years later and the same living room has a crack house atmosphere with graffiti all over the room. The community has gone from all white to all black, and a group has convened for a meeting on zoning ordinances. Steve (Craig Marker) and Lindsey (Kendra Lee Oberhauser) are anxious to buy the property since many young whites are moving back as part of a re-gentrification of the neighborhood and prices are affordable. The couple also wants to put an addition on the house which has created problems on several levels. What begins as a discussion of codes with Tom (Timothy Redman) devolves into deliberately offensive, bigoted, sexist "jokes" that are more callous and intimidating than clever or funny between Steve and the African-American couple. They are the intelligent Lena (Velina Brown) and her husband Kevin (Adrian N. Roberts) who now represent the neighborhood association; both object to the overall idea of the tear down of the house.

The brilliant cast puts an enjoyable polish on an often strident and thorny work. Lydia DiVito is stunning as Bev, a 1950s pseudo-liberal who anxiously chirps, while Richard Howard gives a powerful performance of a man who is still suffering the loss of his son. Lydia DiVito also gives an intelligent performance as the new buyers' lawyer Kathy in the second act. In the second act Richard Howard makes the most of his small role as the contractor of the house.

Craig Marker is outstanding is the mealy-mouthed Karl, spokesperson for the white homeowners in first act. He also gives a first rate performance as Steve who wants to buy the house in the second act. Kendra Lee Oberhauser as Betsy is uproarious playing the pregnant, deft wife of Karl and then comes into her own in the second act, admirably playing expecting Lindsey.

Timothy Redmond neatly gives a great performance as the awkward pastor in the first act and in the second act effectively plays Tom from the homeowners association who examines the plans to build a house fifteen feet higher. Velina Brown as the African-American housekeeper Francine and Adrian N. Roberts as her husband Albert are submissive in the first act but skillfully become confident and professional characters looking out for the interests of their heritage in now African-American neighborhood in the second act.

Michael Butler has his hands full with all of these characters, but he dexterously directs all of confrontations between the characters. J.B Wilson has designed a spacious living room for the house in the first act and the same room with no props but folding chairs and graffiti on the walls in the second act.

Clybourne Park runs through March 1, 204 at Lesher Center of the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. For tickets call 925-943-7469 or visit Coming up next is Anthony Shaffer's classic thriller Sleuth opening on March 28 and running through April 26th.

A Stimulating Production of Jon Robin Baitz's The Paris Letter

Tom Reilly and Ron Dritz
Jon Robin Baitz always writes stimulating dramas, and The Paris Letter is no exception. The two hour and half hour production is currently playing in the Walker Theatre of the New Conservatory Theatre Center with a splendid cast of five actors playing various roles, sharply directed by George Maguire.

The Paris Letter jumps back and forth from the 1960s to 2001. It tells the story of a heavily closeted Wall Street broker and how he completely denies that he is a homosexual. It follows the life of fledgling Sandy (Paul Collins), a Princeton graduate, and his one and only relationship with Anton (David Ewing) in the 1960s. His stylish dependent mother Katie (Michaela Greeley) could just be part of his problem. He sees in the older Anton something that he truly needs: secrecy, youth and adoration. Yet he refused to believe he is truly a homosexual since, while at college, he had sexual affairs with women. Sandy goes to Dr. Schiffman (Ron Dritz), a meddlesome psychiatrist specializing in curing homosexuals and steering them straight. Apparently there was little conversation about persons being bi-sexual in the 1960s.

The older Sandy (Ron Dritz) is a Wall Street banker in 2006. He is married to Lillian (Michaela Greeley), and Sandy is still "best friends" with Anton (Tom Reilly), but of course, no sex. Sandy tells Anton that, since he is married he has no feelings for men but, from the conversations they have, you get the feeling he is suppressing his sexual feelings for men. Sandy's experimentation with marriage ends in a disastrously unexpected way and after a lifetime of upset and rejection Anton seeks some measure of justice, if not out-and-out revenge.

The older Anton, who is still Sandy's non-sexual best friend and spurned lover, is beautifully played by Tom Reilly. He is also the narrator who introduces the action and fills in the details of this interesting story. Reilly commands the stage in every scene with his terrific stage voice.

David Ewing shines playing young Anton and Burt the older lover of Sandy during the last scenes of the drama that take place in Paris. Paul Collins is impressive as young Sandy whom we see going through years of absolute torment while he struggles with his homosexuality. Michaela Greeley skillfully plays the roles of young Sandy's mother Katie and Sandy's doomed wife Lillian. Ron Dritz capably doubles as the older Sandy and the intrusive psychiatrist Dr. Schiffman.

Baitz's script is erudite, crafty and intelligent and director George Maguire gives it a commendably clear and lucid production. David Kasper has designed a handsome set for the small stage. Christian Mejia's lighting brings visual clearness to the nude scene that takes place behind a gauze screen representing an apartment in Paris during one of the last scenes.

The Paris Letter runs through February 23, 2014, at the Walker Theatre, New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave. San Francisco. For tickets please call 415-861-8972 or visit Coming up next is Del Shores' Yellow opening on February 21 and running through March 23, 2014.Photo 1: Sandy dines with his mother at the restaurant owned by his lover, Anton. Paul Collins, David Ewing, Michaela Greeley.

- Richard Connema

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