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Theatre Review: ‘Clybourne Park’


Remember the pan across the appalled, slackjawed audience in the original movie "The Producers," at the end of "Springtime for Hitler"? The cast of Bruce Norris' "Clybourne Park" would surely see Taper spectators' faces registering similar horror eight times a week, were they not so focused behind the fourth wall on bringing to life the Pulitzer Prize winning, coruscating exploration of how we talk and think about race in America. Yes, it's dangerous and provocative, but pulverizingly funny to boot.

Norris' jazz riff on themes within pioneering 1959 drama "A Raisin in the Sun" requires no prior familiarity with Lorraine Hansberry's classic (although Center Theater Group has made that easier to obtain by simultaneously presenting the splendid Ebony Rep revival on Culver City's sister Kirk Douglas stage). If you don't recall the struggle of the Younger family to escape Chicago's inner city for a house in an all-white suburb, Norris has already firmly woven the passion underlying their dreams of ownership and identity into his own dramatic fabric.

Upon taking us into the living room of new digs 404 Clybourne St., first in that day and then 50 years later in act two, Norris is able to incisively explore the complex politics of racial animus. How do we maintain what's ours, while ceding to others their rights? ("We" and "ours" is every American talking, of whatever race.) What, in fact, does anyone truly "own"? Isn't someone's house or way of life equally the property of history, which has rights equally worthy of our protection?

Most of all, how can we get anywhere in these negotiations if we can't say, clearly and unequivocally without fear of being misunderstood or accused, exactly what we mean? That's Norris's number one inquiry.

Each act opening seems to tread water in bizarrely winding "Who's On First?" arguments over the derivation of the word "Neapolitan" or the capital of Morocco.

But Norris is cleverly using trivia to lay the groundwork for more dire wordplay to come. A neighborhood jackass (Jeremy Shamos) twists into a pretzel to avoid sounding racist, while persuading a homeowner (Frank Wood) not to sell to "those people." Fifty years later, a white guy (Shamos again) and a black community rep (Crystal A. Dickinson) fixate on race-based jokes - each more shocking than the one before - to talk around their different views of property rights.

Rarely in American drama have the gaps between what one wants to say, how one says it and what one really feels been as hilariously explored for dramatic effect as Norris is able to pull off here. There are secrets in this house and surprises, too, expertly managed by helmer Pam MacKinnon on Daniel Ostling's thematically expressive set, in the hands of a brilliant and versatile company. All are united in the task of peeling back society's veneer to confront the terrors lurking below the surface.

"Clybourne Park" has no easy answers for the questions it raises about the historical roots and present-day dimensions of racial disharmony. But it sharpens the viewer's antennae for the obfuscation in which we timidly traffic when trying to discuss those questions, and that's a public service right there.

This production transfers to Broadway's Walter Kerr Theater in April.


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