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Theatre Review: ‘Clybourne Park’ at the Mark Taper Forum


Can a drama be memorable if all its characters are disagreeable? Bruce Norris proves that it’s possible in “Clybourne Park,” his smart, abrasively funny and fiendishly provocative play that opened Wednesday at the Mark Taper Forum.

This superb production, which premiered off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 2010, is headed to Broadway after its Los Angeles run. And the precision with which the cast members, under the expert direction of Pam MacKinnon, shape their multiple roles goes a long way toward making this biting satiric comedy about racial discord and communal disingenuousness as damnably enjoyable as it is.

The play, which won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for drama, fills in the story of one of the most famous houses in 20th century drama — the modest Chicago home in the white part of town that the African American Younger family is heading to at the end of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.” But this locale and the character of Karl, the awful Clybourne Park Improvement Association representative who tried to persuade the Youngers not to move where they’re not welcome, are about the only things these two distinctive works have in common.

Unlike its predecessor, “Clybourne Park” would rather make you squirm than tear up. Its stylized staccato dialogue is the music of disharmony — the chitchat sound of regular folks failing miserably at their attempts to get along. And Norris’ more cynical 21st century view sees progress as little more than a fiction promulgated by those who can’t accept that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The first act takes place in 1959 as Bev (Christina Kirk) and Russ (Frank Wood) are packing up their house to move to a different neighborhood in the wake of their unceasing parental grief. Their son, a Korean War veteran, committed suicide after it became known that he had killed civilians in the field of battle. Karl (Jeremy Shamos), up in arms that the house has been sold to an African American family, tries to get his friends to call off the deal, but Russ isn’t feeling much loyalty to the old neighborhood after the cool reception his son was given when he returned from war.

The trauma of his loss has made it impossible for Russ to go along with the hypocrisies of everyday social life, and his seething resentment has turned his wife into a stereotypical 1950s nervous wreck. He lashes out at the earnest, fresh-faced clergyman (Brendan Griffin) sent to counsel him, kicks Karl out of his house while showering curses on Karl’s pregnant deaf wife (Annie Parisse) and almost gets into a fistfight with the husband (Damon Gupton) of his housekeeper (Crystal A. Dickinson), who clearly can’t take another minute of Bev’s patronizing.

The second act, set in 2009, whisks us to our own equally contentious era. Steve (Shamos) and his pregnant wife, Lindsey (Parisse), a well-off young couple, are in a meeting with their lawyer (Kirk) in the now dilapidated Clybourne Park house they’re planning to tear down and lavishly rebuild. The neighborhood, overrun for years with drugs and crime, has become “desirable” again, but Lena (Dickinson), named after her great aunt, the matriarch of Hansberry’s play, wants to ensure that the historical character of Clybourne Park isn’t destroyed by the influx of new money and questionable taste.

The tense standoff, exacerbated by lousy cellphone etiquette, involves a petition that Lena has started with her husband, Kevin (Gupton), and Tom (Griffin), a representative of the Owners Association. All parties assume they’re on the same progressive page. But the joke is that for all the strides in race relations, people are still having an impossible time dealing with their differences, which if anything have only proliferated over the last half century. We may have grown more self-conscious about our prejudices, the play suggests, but we definitely haven’t transcended them.

“Clybourne Park” is as curious about language as it is about sociology. Norris’ characters are engaged in all sorts of fussy word games. The modern-day Clybourne Park residents are more sophisticated, but the patterns in their banter are remarkably similar to that of their predecessors. Communication, needless to say, isn’t on an upward curve. The only growth has been in our stock of euphemisms. Man may be a social animal, but he’s also a ferociously territorial one. Compelled to reach out, he’s even more compelled to defend his turf. “Clybourne Park” illustrates this through the verbal thrust and parry of characters who are never more belligerent than when they’re being polite.

All these dynamics are captured with enormous élan in MacKinnon’s sensationally acted production, which finds room for some haunting pathos amid all the sardonic laughs. The uniformly excellent cast, walking a tightrope between comic stereotypes and fleshed out dramatic characters, perfectly conveys Norris’ peculiar genius for making unpalatable truths a theatrical pleasure.

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