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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
In terms of construct, Clybourne Park is more like the recently reviewd British import, The Pride, (Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain also comes to mind). Like The Pride this is not a new story but rather another instance of the cliche about the more things change, the more they remain the same. However, Mr. Norris has applied the full force of his provocateur's wit and his gift for sparkling, often overlapping, dialogue to the device of having the situation play out in two different eras. Consequently, there's nothing trite or overly familiar here.
Unlike David Mamet's less than galvanizing Race, Clybourne Park confronts the race issue with much more flair. The turnabout viewpoint could easily be a gimmicky piggybacking on Hansberry's landmark drama. However, Norris moves beyond the structural novelty and A Raisin In the Sun tie-in, so that what starts like a sort of mid-American drawing room comedy builds into a social drama that's as disturbing as it is funny. The script cleverly connects the two eras with parallel dialogue and interaction. The playwright also manages to let the family tragedy that prompts the first act's family to sell their home make a meaningful and poetic contribution to the unsettling second act denouement.
The setting is the same both for Clybourne Park's 1959 and 2009 sequences. While the locale never changes, the condition of the house. Daniel Ostling scenery is a telling commentary on all the changes the neighborhood has undergone. The characters in each act have different names and personas but the actors are the same, which adds another fun to watch element, especially given the top drawer performances.
If there are any standouts in this cast honors probably should go to the first three actors we meet: Frank Wood and Christina Kirk who get the plot started as Russ and Bev and Crystal A. Dickinson as Francine their live-out maid. The living room of Russ and Bev's house is still fully furnished, but there are packing boxes all around to indicate that Russ won't be sitting in the armchair reading the National Geographic and absent-mindedly snacking from a carton of ice cream. Bev is clearly not as relaxed as Russ and as they banter about the meaning and origin of Neopolitan (the flavor of the ice cream Russ is eating), there's an aura of tension, even a touch of menace, permeating the seemingly casual back and forth. There's also something less than easy and relaxed in Bev and Francine's relationship, with Francine probably refusing the chafing dish Bev wants to give her, because, well-meaning as the offer is, it comes off as patronizing.
The uneasiness overhanging the house, the despair showing through Russ's calm exterior (Wood is a master of understated tension) comes a bit more to light with the arrival of Jim (Brendan Griffin), the family minister. The racially charged situation surrounding the house sale explodes shortly after the arrival of family friend and Rotarian Karl (Jeremy Shamos) and his deaf and very pregnant wife Betsy (Annie Parisse). Anyone familiar with Shamos and Parisse is likely to do a double take as both are almost unrecognizable. They inhabit these roles with comic excess but then Norris is not averse to giving some broad strokes to his humor and Betsy's deafness is actually an apt metaphor for the all-around deafness that keeps racial and marital issues boiling from generation to generation.
Without going too deeply into plot details. Russ and Bev do not intentionally sell their house to a black family but their carte blanche to the real estate agent nevertheless makes them the ones to breach the Clybourne Park color bar. All of Karl's efforts — at first friendly and reasoning, eventually angry enough to open the pandora's box of Russ and Bev's tragedy — come to naught. And so, fast forward to 2009 and the metamorphosis of Karl and Betsy into Steve and Lindsey, an upscale professional couple. The short and convenient commute that made the suburbs appealing to Russ, has grown longer so that the proximity to the inner city has prompted Steve and Lindsey to abandon their suburban life style for gentrification-ripe Clybourne Park.
Naturally, since Clybourne Park has, true to Karl's predictions, gone through some bad times, the house we saw in act one is hardly in move-in condition. Consequently, Lindsey and Steve have hired an architect who seems bent on turning it into one of those McMansions that have become a luxury blight in so many communities. The present day sequence revolves around Lindsey and Steve's meeting in the empty house with their realtor (Brendan Griffin, without his minister's collar), their lawyer (Christina Kirk now a cool career woman who's shed her blonde curls and stay-at-home wife image). Also present are Lena and Kevin (Crystal A. Dickinson and Damon Gupton, last seen as the maid and her white folks pleasing husband Albert), two black home owners who, having hung in rather than head to the suburbs during the neighborhood's downturn, and now want to insure that newcomers respect the area's architectural and historic integrity.
This more sophisticated group of people again start off amicably enough, their banter about names of places now linked to their vacation trips rather than an ice cream brand. But concerns about the height of the renovation inevitably turn toxic with racism coming to the forefront.
Director Pam MacKinnon sees to it that the ensuing all-around bad behavior is actually more fun to watch this time around. The actors excel in underscoring the differences and connections between their 1959 and 2009 roles.
Frank Wood, while not an active participant in the discussion about the renovation, is again outstanding in a peripheral but significant role that leads to the laughter to stop and the two acts to be tied together with a strong tug at the heart strings.
The New York premiere production ran at Playwright Horizon's main stage with same cast, director and design team from 1/29/10; to3/21/10.
Slings & Arrows- view 1st episode free
Anything Goes Cast Recording
Our review of the show
Book of Mormon -CD
Our review of the show