“It’s all right. Nothing’s broken.”
That statement is spoken during Clybourne Park, currently in performances at the Walter Kerr Theater. Triumphantly arriving on Broadway after a rocky transition, Bruce Norris’ play is an uncomfortably resonant and reluctantly entertaining account of racial tension, both past and present.
Much like sitting down to play a hand of poker, the producers may have been seen as taking a gamble on Clybourne Park, viewing its Broadway mounting as a high-risk, but also high-payoff, poker game. The show, whose Broadway transfer was viewed as a drama in and of itself, has successfully arrived on Broadway, offering audiences an insightful and unsettling look at race in present-day society.
Directed by Pam MacKinnon and featuring its original – and excellent – Off-Broadway cast, Clybourne Park takes place in one house built in the titular neighborhood first mentioned in A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 drama. In the first act, which is set in 1959, we are introduced to Bev and Russ (Christina Kirk and Frank Wood), a married couple who are moving out of their home. Busily packing up their house, which they recently sold, they are visited by Karl (Jeremy Shamos), who informs them that their home has been sold to an African-American family. That family is the Youngers, who are the main characters in A Raisin in the Sun, and Karl is the only character in Clybourne Park who was carried over from one play to the other. Karl expresses concern about the effect this new family will have on the community, especially on the future property value of their homes. This knowledge inspires a fierce debate about racism, during which Bev’s African-American maid Francine (Crystal A. Dickinson) and her husband, Albert (Damon Gupton) are reluctantly pulled in to participate. The resulting conversation is extremely uncomfortable and ultimately results in a shouting match, despite Karl’s nervous assertion that Clybourne Park is a “progressive community,” and Bev innocently and earnestly reminding everyone around her that the new family could be “perfectly lovely.”
Act Two finds us in the same neighborhood, in the same house, in 2009. (The atmosphere-enhancing sets are by Daniel Ostling, and the timely costumes are by Ilona Somogyi.) Now Clybourne Park has indeed become a neighborhood of African Americans, and an upper middle class Caucasian couple (Annie Parisse and Shamo) are purchasing the home in order to tear it down and build a new one. They are meeting in the living room of the house with lawyers and members of the community (Dickinson and Gupton) who have some objections to their plans. After tactfully avoiding the topic of race for much of the conversation, Shamo attempts to address it just as politely. But the resulting conversation is anything but polite, addressing racial jokes and modern-day attempts to defy racial stereotypes. Tempers are lost and hurtful words are exchanged. It is fast, fierce and frightening to witness.
All of the characters are well-dressed and well-spoken – on the surface. But when their real anxieties and doubts are called into question, they shed their facades. Whether it is Parisse’s Lindsey soothingly assuring Lena and Kevin that she isn’t a racist – after all, she dated a black guy once – or Wood’s Russ letting his anger slowly build until it explodes, this tension is visible and even tangible throughout the entire play, in both places and both times.
Each member of the ensemble gives a strong and fully-formed performance, presenting their characters as real, albeit fairly unlikable, people. As Russ, a husband and father coping with grief, Wood gives a well-paced and underplayed performance. In the second act, he provides some much-needed levity as Dan, the crass and blunt-spoken mechanic working in the backyard of the house. Kirk is outstanding as Bev, earnestly trying to keep everything pleasant despite the grief and rage coursing just below the surface of her home. She also flexes her comedic chops in Act Two as the blunt and uncouth Kathy. Jeremy Shamos shines as the nebbish and nervous Karl and gives a completely different, and equally impressive, performance as Steve. Parisse is just as good as Betsy, the deaf woman in Act One and then as the well-meaning but perhaps too eloquent Lindsey in Act Two.
Dickinson and Gupton are both remarkably impressive as Francine and Albert in Act One and Lena and Kevin in Act Two. Dickinson brings a quiet dignity and strength to Francine, as well as a sadness that depicts just how hard it has been for her to maintain that dignity. As Albert, Gupton is equally poised, but one can sense the emotion just beneath his affable exterior. Both characters are more verbal (and profane) in Act Two, but equally as composed and complex.
Brendan Griffin does triple duty as the local priest Jim in Act One who uncomfortably witnesses a vulgar and profane argument and then as Tom, an impartial lawyer in Act Two. He also plays Kenneth, Bev and Russ’ late son, who encountered tragedy after returning from war in Korea. Griffith, who is a steady and impressive presence onstage, seems a bit underused in these straight-man roles and one wonders what he could do with a more dramatic role.
The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as the Olivier Award in London, Clybourne Park was first written and performed in 2009 but is equally as timely today. It is interesting to weigh its relevance in a society still focused on the Trayvon Martin shootings and following the acclaim – and criticism – of the novel and film The Help. Race is still a hot topic; that fact is undeniable and Clybourne Park reveals nothing new regarding that topic. What this play does depict, bluntly and unapologetically, is how difficult it is for members of our society to listen to each other while discussing volatile topics. Karl’s wife Betsy is deaf, but as the dialogue between the other people in the living room progresses, she does not seem to be listening any less than anyone else. The last words the audience hears from the play are hopeful, but they are juxtaposed with witnessing a brutal act of self-hatred and violence, leaving one to ponder just how effective words of change really are. The families in both acts of Clybourne Park are preparing to move, but neither of them actually move forward. Instead they are trapped in perpetual purgatory.