‘Clybourne Park’: The Hottest Real Estate on Broadway
Race and real estate and the volatile values of each collide in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris, which opened April 19 at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway. If you think it’s about another upwardly-mobile African-American couple breaking the real estate race barrier (and there is one), you’re only half right. Stick around for the second act, and that couple knocking at the front door to get in is white.
Act One. It’s 1959. In case you’re wondering, Perry Como can be heard singing “Catch a Falling Star.” But even in this innocuous, Wonder Bread atmosphere, it’s not surprising that Russ and his wife Bev have turned over their middle-class castle to a black family, making themselves pariahs in Chicago’s Clybourne Park community. A son’s suicide could put any middle-of-the-road, well-meaning father over the edge, especially when the son is accused of massacring innocent civilians during the Korean War. Frank Wood’s cold-blooded but complex portrayal as Russ is spot-on. Anyone who caught his Tony award-winning performance in Side Man knows this is the right actor for the role.
Christina Kirk as Bev gives us a flighty, suspect cheerfulness. She scurries from one end of the stage to the other, amidst the packing boxes, seeing only what she wants to see. She directs her black maid Francine — played with a likewise suspect cheerfulness by Crystal A. Dickinson — with a schoolgirl intimacy. That too is suspect. Possessing as she does a shrill, high-strung nervousness, we fear there’s no net to catch this Good Housekeeping paragon should she fall. When she is reminded that knowledge is power, she simply replies, “I choose to remain powerless.”
If Bev is powerless, there’s a power play of another sort in the works. Brendan Griffin, as an idealistic young priest, pays a call on her husband and like the Energizer bunny of TV commercial land, is hardly deterred — even when the four-letter words keep coming in his direction. When Karl, a Rotary Club pal, arrives with his wife, the play picks up the interracial steam we’ve been expecting. Even with maid Francine’s strapping hubby Albert on the scene to help with the moving chores, not even his presence can plug up the flood of invectives to come. Only at the end of Act One, when Bev tries to undo the emotional disarray by offering Albert (played by Damon Gupton) a silver chafing dish, does he tell her with a chilling calm that, “we don’t want your things, we have our own things.”
As a spokesman for the Clybourne Park community, Karl throws off the good neighbor routine quickly enough. With a growing realization that his arguments against the sale of the house are useless, he shows himself as the priggish, self-righteous racist he really is; as played by Jeremy Shamos, he is easy to despise. Even his overweening attentions to his wife, Betsy, can’t be trusted. Annie Parisse shines in her portrayal of the pregnant deaf mute. The playwright has given her few words to stumble through, but in her poignant confusion over the proceedings, her face is so expressive that speech would only be superfluous. When the assembled company as well as the audience is in danger of being shell-shocked by the expletives, Karl screams out: “That is not language I will tolerate in front of my wife.” “She’s deaf!” Russ retorts.
The play is full of rough jokes that carry a knock-out punch to the gut, and you will have to see the show for yourself to savor them. But these are jokes that come at a price. Only the most desensitized audience member, regardless of color, would fail to recognize that we laugh at our own expense.
Act Two. It’s 2009. A lot can change in 50 years. It’s the same actors, only different characters. It’s the same house too, and it’s back on the market. Only now, our budding young man of the cloth is a real estate agent, and the former contrite housewife, as played by Christina Kirk, has transformed herself into a razor-sharp lawyer (who just happens to be the daughter of the deaf mute wife from the previous act). Lena, the daughter of the former housemaid Francine, and Kevin (formerly Albert) are the current homeowners. There’s a new confidence afoot. Their race hasn’t changed, but they’re obviously comfortable in their own skin.
Miss Parisse’s character is another expectant mom, only this time she’s the buyer and her hearing is just fine. Hers is a hilarious portrayal of a bleeding heart liberal and it’s played to perfection. She has to have this house because the current community where she lives is “eroding” her soul. Of course, the architectural integrity of the block doesn’t seem to weigh on her conscience, as she and her husband (played by Jeremy Shamos with less of the rancor he revealed as the racist neighbor Karl) plan to demolish the structure and replace it with a 15-foot taller version to their liking. This time, our African-Americans as homeowners get to deliver their 50 lashes and Ms. Dickinson — with great comic timing — lets them rip.
Any pretense of civility between the couples has quickly disintegrated and it’s the audience that’s left trying to pick up the pieces of a real estate transaction gone berserk.
It’s certainly not the first time that playwrights have tackled the question of racism and how thinly-veiled it remains in our splintered society. Lorraine Hansberry’s racially volatile Raisin in the Sun ignited audiences in 1959. She was the first black woman to be produced on Broadway and playwright Bruce Norris loosely based his own Clybourne Park on the black family’s struggle in Hansberry’s script. David Mamet’s Race also titillated audiences by placing a female black assistant in an all-white male law firm; but in Norris’ beautifully structured play, the words shock and sting. It’s not titillation we hear, but audible gasps amidst the laughter.
The play’s platitudes and homespun solutions to modern life are so typical of the 1950s, that we might simply dismiss them — if it weren’t for the power and veracity of the performances. This ensemble is reunited from the original off-Broadway production at Playwrights Horizons in 2010 and it shows. They give us real flesh and blood characters. When that skin-deep solicitousness is peeled back with the clarity of a surgeon’s scalpel, we see what lies beneath.
Director Pam MacKinnon doesn’t simply move her actors around Daniel Ostling’s roomy set — both kitschy and jazzed-up for its 50-year facelift — like chess pieces. She lets them breathe, spit, and shout, overlapping one another to good effect. Ilona Somogyi’s costume designs hold up to the test of time, as does Allen Lee Hughes’ lighting. Clybourne Park has been scrubbed up and polished, and is as good as new and ready for sale, for its Broadway debut.
Lorraine Hansberry once said, “All art is ultimately social: that which agitates and that which prepares the mind for slumber.” One thing’s certain. You won’t fall asleep in this park.
“Clybourne Park” opened on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street, on April 19th, for a limited 16-week engagement. For more information regarding the production visit http://clybournepark.com.