Clybourne Park: Theater Review

Award-winning play cannily tackles how we express racism through language with pointed comedy of manners and somewhat less poignant pathos.

This provocative winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama made news when lead producer Scott Rudin abruptly walked away from the upcoming Broadway transfer over a dispute with playwright Bruce Norris.

This Pulitzer and Olivier award-winner for best play accomplishes an unusual feat in the commercial theater: it's a crowd-pleaser that nevertheless succeeds in needling and discomfitting its target audience in productive, if hardly profound, ways. Bruce Norris’ acute ear for how we talk about race, and more pointedly, about our attitudes and emotions achieves some genuine horror in its first act. It then turns that horror back at us by showing its evolution over the decades, yielding comic, but no less telling, insights into how that evolution can represent an improvement without much substantive change.

Conceived as a riff on the classic A Raisin in the Sun (concurrently in production in a moveover from the Ebony Reportory at CTG’s Kirk Douglas Theatre), the play first picks up at the house the Youngers have bought as the sellers prepare to move out. Having failed to buy off the black family with a higher offer, Karl Lindner of the neighborhood association makes a last ditch effort to scuttle the transaction. Unlike the self-conscious, essentially parodistic paraphrasing of shows like Mad Men, this first act captures 1959 expressions in recognizable vernacular. The unconscious racism and more pervasive patronizing flow from a more fiercely broad set of destructive assumptions about social behavior and human relationships. It’s shocking to contemporary ears, though it takes no pains not to discomfit today’s audiences with any sense that these attitudes still persist.

At intermission, the air of social superiority was almost electric, as if we had been watching The Help, with general clucking about how much things have now changed, thankfully. Considering how common it is to hear virtually identical assertions being made in Los Angeles and throughout the country concerning Spanish-speaking émigrés in routine conversation, I fretted that the play was going to reinforce complacency by congratulating everyone on their convictions that we are now so different from 1959. But Norris’ coup is that he delivers his second-act punch with the most effective sort of blow: satiric wit.

In 2009 Clybourne Park has spent decades in decay after rapid white flight turned the neighborhood into the self-fulfilling yet utterly accurate prediction of the horrid Lindner. Now because of its proximity to downtown, the area is gentrifying, with a white professional couple about to tear down the old house and rebuild, running afoul of neighbors who want to preserve the area’s traditional architectural character. Under the dire pressures of noxious cellphone etiquette, the civic meeting deteriorates from expressions of good faith into a mess of prickly, righteous attitudes in which everyone manages to be both right and wrong, usually simultaneously, and above all, to maintain their own sense of grievance.

The point is that there still remains no polite discourse for racial issues, and its familiarity stings. Norris has particular fun in the rhyming of double casting, repetition of lines and parallel situations between the two supposedly contrasting acts. In the end, he deploys offensive and vulgar jokes both to torpedo the meeting and to give everyone a chance at liberation from the tyranny of good intentions, managing to give the audience true bellylaughs that carry real hurt.

This production has been transplated virtually intact with the original cast and design from Playwrights Horizon Off Broadway. It is scheduled to move to Broadway upon completion of the Los Angeles run, provided new backers can be assembled in time after the exit of lead producer Scott Rudin. The play is performed by a crackerjack cast that nails the beats as deftly as required in Coward or Shaw, though I might have preferred a greater feint at Midwestern accents for more awful versimilitude.

On the whole, while undeniably successful, Clybourne Park keeps its transgressiveness rigorously within the bounds of commercial acceptance. That deprives it of the transformative power of a more forcefully inventive piece like the daring Neighbors by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Indeed, the weakest aspect of the current show is that it resorts to a tired dramaturgical device, the arbitrary deployment of the dead child, which Norris invokes skillfully without overcoming its unpersuasive artifice.

Venue: Mark Taper Forum (runs through February 26)
Cast: Crystal A. Dickinson, Brendan Griffin, Damon Gupton, Christina Kirk, Annie Parisse, Jeremy Shamos, Frank Wood.
Director: Pam MacKinnon.
Scenic Designer: Daniel Ostling.
Lighting Designer: Allen Lee Hughes.
Sound Designer: John Gromada.
Costume Designer: Ilona Somogyi.
Center Theatre Group Presents The Playwrights Horizons Production.