Monday, April 2, 2012

theatre review CLYBOURNE PARK, Broadway, March 30

The new Broadway play Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris comes to Broadway with a pretty high pedigree.  It won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2011 Olivier Award for Best New Play.  I'm not certain if  it is because I went in with somewhat high expectations knowing the play had won those awards but I was basically underwhelmed by the play.

Set in a house in Chicago's Clybourne Park district, the play tells the story of two different sets of characters.  In act one, set in 1959, those characters include a middle aged white couple who experience a tragedy in their lives and are moving out of their house in just a few days.  Various members of their community come to visit them one day when they learn that the family the house has been sold to isn't white.  The concern as to what this will do to the rest of the area is the driving force to try to get the couple to change their minds about selling the house to this family.  However the husband doesn't want to listen to their concerns since they all pretty much turned their backs on him and his wife before and after they experienced the tragedy that had a huge impact on their lives.

In act two, set in 2009, we see the same house, now in disarray, and the young white urban couple who are in the final stages to begin demolishing the house after they recently purchased it. You see, because the neighborhood is so close to downtown, white families are looking to move back into the area, so even though the community is run down, it is suddenly hot again.  The couple are surrounded by members of the homeowners association and their lawyer as it seems their plans aren't exactly in line with the by laws of the association.  The concern is that their house will now be larger then those surrounding it and of a more modern architecture, thus providing concern as to what it will do to the neighborhood. 

Christina Kirk and Frank Wood
The play touches on many themes and ideas.  Everything from racism, sexism and racial integration to issues around class, housing, the gentrification of neighborhoods and how people feel about their neighbors is present.  And a key element is how the perceptions neighbors have when their fellow neighbor's children come back from fighting overseas might not be exactly correct and could eventually not only force a family to move out of the area but for their son to commit suicide.

While Clybourne Park is a well written and acted play, I guess the major issue I had with it is that it is supposed to be a take off or homage to the classic drama A Raisin in the Sun.  The house the play is set in is the same one that the family in A Raisin in the Sun is moving into, as the black family in that play is the family who bought the house.  Even a minor character in Raisin is a character in Clybourne Park, the one most desperate and forceful about getting the family in act one not to sell the house.  But if you didn't know that connection going in, which I'm not sure the average theater goer would know, I'm not sure how it is relevant to the play,  it is more like Norris is simply staying, "look how cool I am that I wrote this play set in the same house mentioned in this other classic drama and touching on some of the same issues in that famous play."  And while I understand that Norris is trying to get the point across that basically nothing has changed over fifty years as it concerns racism, to me that point has been made by other plays and movies and, in better ways then in this play.

Christina Kirk, Jeremy Shamos, Annie Parisse, Brendan Griffin,
 Damon Gupton and Crystal A. Dickinson
Also, in attempting to be controversial and comical, it just comes off as mundane and even somewhat amateurish due to the constant laziness in act two on drawing upon racial jokes to show us how nothing has changed.  And the fact that the seven member cast plays the characters in both acts, and only two of the actors are black, means that in act two when the community is supposed to be an African American community it still seems like it is the whites that are running the show.   It would have been nice to see this show have a larger cast and to really see how even when the tables turn, and the whites aren't in the majority, that the African Americans who now live in or own the houses in this community still exhibit many of the same actions that the white families did 50 years ago.

Now I did like how several comments or scenes in act one were replayed but with different results in act two, especially a joke about skiing.  And the constant interruption of the character's cell phones in act two that gets in the middle of important conversations was perfectly delivered and oh so accurate. Also, the cast was pretty good, especially Frank Wood and Christina Kirk as the couple selling the house in act one.  Kirk so perfectly portrayed the part of the condescending 1950's housewife and the lawyer in act two who always has to turn the conversation back to herself.  Jeremy Shamos and Annie Parisse are also quite good as a married couple in both acts, in act one it is Shamos' character who is desperate to get the house sale not finalized and in act two they are the couple renovating the house.  Crystal A. Dickinson is the black domestic helper in act one who tries her best to ignore the condescending behavior of her employer.  As good as she is, I just wish that her character in act two wasn't drawn from the same mold as her act one character.

Unlike Raisin in the Sun, I don't think Cybourne Park will be remembered in fifty years except as a footnote to that other famous play.  So, count me in the minority for my reaction to this play, though at Friday night's performance there were only about a half dozen people who stood up during the curtain call, so this might be a play that the critics love but most audiences, like me, are left wanting more.

Official Show Site

Highlights from the show:

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