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NEW YORK — A lot has been written about Bruce Norris’ 2011 Pulitzer winner – in its original Off Broadway run; its hit London production, where it won the Olivier Award for best play; and in its recent Los Angeles stop. So much, in fact, that it seems almost superfluous to weigh in so late on this meaty satirical swipe at ingrained prejudices and the way we address them — or fail to. But the fresh revelation is how well Clybourne Park plays on Broadway. In Pam MacKinnon’s expert staging, this is provocative entertainment that generates as much uneasiness as laughter.
The production premiered in early 2010 at Playwrights Horizons with the same director, design team and cast, who probably now know their characters at least as well as the playwright does. Its long-gestating Broadway transfer was jeopardized when lead producer Scott Rudin pulled out this year over issues with Norris. But Jujamcyn Theaters chief Jordan Roth quickly marshaled investors to cover the shortfall. That’s good news for New York theater pundits, since the arrival of Clybourne Park adds genuine suspense to a Tony Awards race in which it likely will face off against another strong new American play, Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities.
The jumping-off point here is a central plot development from Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. In that 1959 drama, the black Younger family is poised to become the first nonwhite residents of the fictitious Chicago neighborhood that gives Norris’ play its title. He recruits only one character from the earlier work, the passive-aggressive bulldog Karl Lindner (Jeremy Shamos) of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association. Having failed to dissuade the Youngers from their purchase with a counteroffer, he makes a clumsy but determined appeal to the property’s departing owners to invalidate the sale.
The play is a slow-starter, and the caricatured 1950s sitcom stiffness of Christina Kirk as painfully well-meaning housewife Bev, in particular, takes some getting used to. But MacKinnon, who has honed her directing chops on the heightened realism and scathing social observation of Edward Albee, is in her element here. She and Norris light a time-bomb fuse meticulously braided out of Karl’s meddling, the thorny indignation of Bev’s husband Russ (Frank Wood) and the bristling humiliation of the couple’s black maid Francine (Crystal A. Dickinson).
The showdown between Shamos and Wood is scintillating, providing the two most riveting performances in a uniformly terrific ensemble. His tolerance for polite double-talk exhausted, Russ bubbles to explosion point, hurling accusations at Karl and at the entire community for their lack of compassion during a difficult time for his family.
This is a tautly constructed powder-keg situation that’s mesmerizing to watch. Bev flutters nervously about; young local priest Jim (Brendan Griffin) ineffectually tries to keep the peace; Karl’s deaf, pregnant wife Betsy (Annie Parisse, hilarious) struggles to follow the escalating tensions; and Francine and her husband Albert (Damon Gupton) are reluctantly dragged in to represent the black perspective.
In the more savagely funny second act, which jumps forward 50 years to 2009, the specter of the long-departed Younger family matriarch returns in her great-niece and namesake Lena (Dickinson). As a community representative with a personal attachment to the house, she expresses concern that the historical character of the neighborhood will be compromised by the plans of a white couple, Steve and Lindsey (Shamos and Parisse), to tear down the now-dilapidated two-bedroom and rebuild. They represent the new wave of gentrification about to transform the geographically desirable neighborhood as it bounces back from the blight of drugs and violence.
Also present to go over planning documents are Lena’s husband Kevin (Gupton), Owners Association rep Tom (Griffin) and broker Kathy (Kirk), a wickedly observed Debbie Downer with a stunning inability to read the mood of the room. Wood also occasionally wanders in as a construction worker laying pipes in the yard for a koi pond.
Taking in a half-century of sociodynamic shifts with a mischievous wink, Norris considers how much has changed pre- and post-political correctness. Even more pertinently, he exposes how much our attitudes toward race remain mired in a communication impasse. Well-meaning liberalism may have yielded surface advancements, but the play tartly shows that patronizing insensitivity is alive and well.
Whether the group is tap dancing nervously around the elephant in the room or attempting to straddle it at Steve’s misguided insistence, their interactions are a fascinating study in the self-consciousness that lurks beneath every smug veneer of social sophistication. “Half of my friends are black,” exclaims Lindsey in horror when caught in the crossfire of Steve’s foot-in-mouth clumsiness. Norris also laces the play with discussions of etymology and travel that slyly reinforce the characters’ fixation with ethnicity.
The twin time-period structure and the double-casting of actors as characters that both reinforce and contradict one another are devices notably used by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine in Sunday in the Park with George, by Tom Stoppard in Arcadia and by Lynn Nottage in By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, which premiered after Clybourne. Norris shows us those mechanisms much like a proud watchmaker, but the visibility of the playwright’s hand doesn’t detract from the work’s effectiveness.
Where he falters mildly is in a conclusion that retreats into the history of the house. This works to poignant effect, yet it remains too oblique in its connection to the central issue, even if Norris’ intentions are clear. Still, this is a needling, insightful work, as excruciating as it is funny. And with MacKinnon masterfully steering the wheel, the cast hits every unnerving bump in the road, whether it’s in the hazardous words or the festering discord that lies beneath them.
Venue: Walter Kerr Theatre, New York
Cast: Crystal A. Dickinson, Brendan Griffin, Damon Gupton, Christina Kirk, Annie Parisse, Jeremy Shamos, Frank Wood
Playwright: Bruce Norris
Director: Pam MacKinnon
Set designer: Daniel Ostling
Costume designer: Ilona Somogyi
Lighting designer: Allen Lee Hughes
Sound designer: John Gromada
Presented by Jujamcyn Theaters, Jane Bergère, Roger Berlind/Quintet Productions, Eric Falkenstein/Dan Frishwasser, Ruth Hendel/Harris Karma Productions, JTG Theatricals, Daryl Roth, Jon B. Platt, Center Theatre Group, in association with Lincoln Center Theater
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