|The cast of Clybourne Park (All photos by Joan Marcus)|
Bruce Norris’s brilliant Clybourne Park – which just opened on Broadway in the first-rate production, directed by Pam McKinnon, that originated at Playwrights Horizon two years ago – begins as what seems like a satirical take on 1950s America. Daniel Ostling’s set reproduces a staid mid-century interior design; the locale, which the title identifies, is a middle-class neighborhood in central Chicago in 1959. But the backdrop beyond the front door, which we can glimpse through a stage-right window, has a touch of artificiality about it, and it feels as if there’s a film of gray over everything. The inhabitants, Bev (Christina Kirk) and Russ (Frank Wood), are moving out, so the living room is crowded with piled-up boxes and rolled-up rugs, but the sense you get of remoteness, transience, alienation go deeper. (Allen Lee Hughes did the lighting.) The opening conversation between these middle-aged people is mostly a meaningless disagreement about capital cities. Bev has a smiley-face quality, like that of a camp counselor committed to teaching a group of eight-year-olds the rules to a new game. She has a bit of a baby-talk sound, and a habit of buckling at the knees and rolling her eyes when she wants to make a point, and she waves her hands around to underscore her words, so we seem to be getting the Classics Illustrated version of everything she says. She’s set on getting her husband moving: he’s still in his PJs, and she wants him to get a footlocker out of one of the upstairs rooms but he keeps putting her off. Russ, who is reading a National Geographic in his easy chair, is agreeable enough, but as playful as his tone is, his replies sound like evasion tactics. When the local minister, Jim (Brendan Griffin), enters with a football in his hands – and golden-haired Griffin looks like a college football star – the number of motivators on the stage doubles. He chatters to the couple in wobbly clichés, his tone relentlessly upbeat. Then there’s the African American maid, Francine (Crystal A. Dickinson), whose husband, Albert (Damon Gupton), has arrived to pick her up. These two are like savvy domestics on an antiquated TV sitcom.
Nothing in Bev or Russ’s demeanor suggests they are people who have been through a tragedy except perhaps (if we’re looking for clues) Russ’s determined immobility. But Jim, who came by because of Bev’s concern over her husband, brings up the verboten subject of their dead Korean War-vet son, and Russ shuts him up by telling him to go fuck himself. Griffin’s Jim blinks and stares into space, disoriented, as if he’d suddenly found himself in the wrong play, and we wonder, too, as what we’ve been watching jogs for an instant into the kind of modern family drama where characters don’t feel the need to mind their language. Albert, who’s been standing around on the periphery of the action waiting for his wife, ducks out in embarrassment. We think we’ve been pulled back on course when another neighbor, Karl (Jeremy Shamos), shows up with a pregnant wife, Betsy (Annie Parisse), and a terrible sidewall haircut that makes him look as if he’d stepped out of a comic strip of the period. But Betsy’s deafness sets off her sweetness and cuteness so that they seem manufactured, and you register that you’d never find a hearing-impaired character rippling the perfect surface of a fifties TV show.
|Christina Kirk and Frank Wood|
The other agenda has to do with race, which is the real subject of Clybourne Park. Karl is a refugee from another play, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, in which he’s the only white character, the representative from the community organization who tries unsuccessfully to talk the black family, the Youngers, out of moving into what has up to now been a lily-white neighborhood. Norris’s dramatic conceit is that the house the Youngers have bought is Russ and Bev’s, sold by a real estate agent to whom they gave free rein, and Karl, up in arms, marches over to see them immediately after the Youngers have turned down his offer to buy the house back. Karl’s embattled, dog-with-a-bone personality is countered by Jim’s calmer, mediating one: he wants to come across as the voice of reason. But they engage in a kind of tag-team racism that plasters over the community’s fear of being overrun by people of color (the tumbling-property-values argument, which Karl presents, is only the tip of the psychological iceberg) with increasingly, hilariously absurd claims about the natural incompatibility of the races, which don’t eat the same food or enjoy the same pastimes. Poor Francine and Albert, who are stuck awkwardly in the middle of this discussion because Albert has volunteered to haul down the trunk for Bev, become the unwilling focus for the two white men’s object lesson. Francine is obliged to answer awful questions that call for the utmost diplomacy (would she want to move into a neighborhood like this one? would she find the foods her family prefers at their local grocery store?). On the other side of the argument is Bev, with her terror of unpleasantness and what she believes in her heart is a liberal attitude. Karl thinks the neighborhood is progressive because they’ve grown used to having a grocery run by Jews. Bev is appalled by his and Jim’s exclusiveness, but she’s even more self-deluded: she thinks that she and Francine are friends and that race relations could be solved if only we were willing to try eating each other’s foods. And she doesn’t understand how condescending she’s being when she tries repeatedly to press a chafing dish she no longer wants on Francine and Albert. When her obstinacy finally pushes Albert to the point of telling her decisively that they have their own things and don’t want hers, her feelings are hurt. (Dickinson is particularly impressive in this act. She gets almost a Brechtian gestus going: she seems to be simultaneously in the period and in the present, commenting silently on the scenario her character is pinned in.)
Norris links these two narratives ingeniously. At the climax of the act, Russ tells Karl and Jim in no uncertain terms that he couldn’t care less what happens to Clybourne Park. He blames his son’s suicide on the insensitivity of the community (after the story came out, no one would give him a job) and he feels that under the polite neighborly banter he and Bev have been treated as pariahs. His fury is the fire that burns through the first act.
|Damon Gupton and Crystal A. Dickinson|
The veneer of liberal open-heartedness is scalded off when Lena finally makes the speech about her concerns that she’s been waiting patiently to interject while first Lindsey and then Tom are interrupted by their cell phones, and Steve walks off with Dan to investigate some obstruction he’s hit while attempting to uproot the crepe myrtle in the back yard. Lena’s tone of upbeat insistence suggests that she’s used to making motivational speeches in her community. But it switches to knowing condescension when she points out that “this is a highly desirable area . . . And now the area is changing . . . And . . . there are certain economic interests that are being served by those changes and others that are not.” That’s when the negotiations begin to go irrevocably sour. Steve demands that Lena admit that what she’s really talking about is race, though – in spite of the fact that he, like his counterpart in act one, is the character least prone to self-censorship – in the politically correct culture of the twenty-first century he can barely stutter out the word. Lena’s political high-handedness infuriates him, however, and once he gets started he goes too far, indignantly painting himself as an underdog in a land where a black man is in the White House. His behavior so embarrasses his wife – she takes up the well-meaning liberal banner Bev waved in act one – that she blurts out, preposterously, that half her friends are black. This wild-card sequence gets crazier and crazier as first Steve and then Lena tell racist jokes (though Steve claims that his joke can’t be racist because it was related to him by an African American) with unexpected collateral damage: Lindsey finds Lena’s sexist and Tom, who’s gay, thinks Steve’s is homophobic. Norris is such a superb dramatist that he can take this scene as far as he does without ever losing his footing; his satirical grasp seems to broaden as he goes farther over the edge.
|Annie Parisse and Jeremy Shamos|
McKinnon has staged the play expertly; the first-act argument looks like a comic strip at one point, with static, squared-off figures in spaces so discrete they might be separate frames. And her work with the actors is superb. Ilona Somogyi has designed enormously clever costumes that provide pinprick commentaries on the characters. Clybourne Park has had a roundabout trip to Broadway: after its critically acclaimed off-Broadway run it won the Pulitzer Prize and then opened at the Royal Court in London, in a production that garnered several Olivier Awards. This may be one of the rare occasions when a play opens on Broadway after it has already been seen in several regional theatres. It’s worth noting that the Toronto production that closes at the end of the week, directed by my friend Joel Greenberg for Studio 180 at Canadian Stage, is in the same class as the production in New York. In one respect it’s even better: Michael Healey is a more powerful Russ than Frank Wood, the only member of the New York ensemble about whose performance I had reservations. (Healey’s also funnier as Dan in the second act.)
Norris’s point about race in America is that it’s a subject that never goes away. Clybourne Park is an Obama-era play not because of the explicit allusion to him but because the fact of Obama makes the subject more than ever inescapable. Clybourne Park is the best new American play within recent memory.