NY Review: ‘Clybourne Park’ at Walter Kerr Theatre
ERIK HAAGENSON, Backstage.com
The little engine that could has nothing on “Clybourne Park.” Bruce Norris’ era-spanning satire on race in America premiered at Playwrights Horizons in 2010 to generally appreciative notices, played out its run, and closed with the promise of a host of regional theater productions to come. But after a 2011 production at England’s Royal Court Theatre won both the Olivier and Evening Standard awards for best play (the Brits do love to see those grotty Americans sent up), followed by Norris picking up a little thing called the Pulitzer Prize for drama, a group of intrepid producers led by Scott Rudin decided to bring the show to Broadway. He reassembled the Playwrights production and booked an out-of-town engagement in Los Angeles at Center Theatre Group. Then, in a childish fit of depressing but all too characteristic pique, he suddenly withdrew when Norris, who is also an actor, declined a gig in a Rudin-produced cable-TV pilot. Fortunately, Jujamcyn Theaters head Jordan Roth, whose Walter Kerr Theatre was to host the show, stepped into the breach to provide the final push, perching “Park” at the pinnacle of the Broadway mount for a limited run of 16 weeks. Was it worth all the effort? I imagine that will depend on how strong you take your tea.
There’s no denying the cleverness of Norris’ dramatic conceit and the slickness with which he executes it. Act 1 is set in 1959 and focuses on the attempt of Karl Lindner—the character in Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” who tries to bribe the African-American Younger family out of buying a house in his all-white Chicago neighborhood of Norris’ title—to get Caucasian couple Russ and Bev to rescind their sale. Also involved are the family domestic, Francine, and her husband, Albert, both black; clueless white clergyman Jim; and Betsy, Lindner’s pregnant, hearing-impaired wife. Act 2 leaps forward to 2009, when white yuppie couple Steve and Lindsey have bought the now-dilapidated house and are planning to tear it down to build something bigger. Lena (yes, she’s related to Hansberry’s matriarch of the same name), representing the community association of what has become a largely black neighborhood, wants to prevent the demolition in this landmarked area of low-rise period houses. As she argues, though, it becomes clear that what she really resents is white folks moving in. Also involved in the contretemps are the association’s gay white lawyer, Tom; Lena’s genial but protective husband, Kevin; Steve and Lindsey’s hard-charging white attorney, Kathy; and Dan, a salt-of-the-earth Caucasian workman.
Norris spends Act 1 picking off the expected 1950s targets—racial bigotry, religious hypocrisy, repression of women, suffocating social conformity—with reasonable flair. What he can’t do, however, is give the characters much substance, which dooms his attempt to invoke emotional heft through a family tragedy involving Russ and Bev’s deceased son, Kenneth. Act 2 is less predictable but more rickety, featuring some unpersuasive behavior from Lindsey and the awfully pat juxtaposition of Lena’s racism with Karl’s. The coda, referencing Kenneth’s death, is entirely unsuccessful.
Director Pam MacKinnon keeps things crackling with her sharp direction, and the top-notch cast has further refined its comic timing. The standout remains Frank Wood, who makes the seething Russ into the play’s sole multidimensional character and has found a way to register Dan with greater force than before. Jeremy Shamos does well with Karl and Steve, particularly impressive with the latter’s meltdown into political incorrectness. Annie Parisse and Christina Kirk, as Betsy/Lindsey and Bev/Kathy, brightly illustrate Norris’ thesis that liberation does not necessarily lead to enlightenment. Crystal A. Dickinson and Damon Gupton expertly mine subtext for humor in both acts as Francine/Lena and Albert/Kevin. Brendan Griffin uses his handsome boyishness to vastly different effect as Jim and Tom.
Ultimately, “Clybourne Park” entertains without ever unsettling. I confess to having been mystified by that Pulitzer. Then I remembered that “Harvey” bested “The Glass Menagerie” back in 1945.