Walter Kerr Theatre
Any drama seeking to confront racial prejudice is automatically fraught with challenges. It is a delicate balance that author Bruce Norris adequately attains. Having won the Pulitzer Prize for his efforts, the play arrives with weighty expectations. The cast works admirably, despite some clunky passages.
In a clever structure (reminiscent of Tom Stoppard’s masterful Arcadia), the play takes place in the same room separated by 50 years. As the play opens in 1959, a white couple is preparing to move from their suburban Chicago house in Clybourne Park. The couple’s bickering about capital cities belies a deeper undercurrent of tension. We come to discover that neither parent has reconciled the suicide of their Korean vet son. Neighbors and their parson attempt to persuade the couple to void the sale of their house to the colored folks about to move in, and battle lines are drawn. While Russ (the nuanced Frank Wood) points to the racist nature of the neighbors’ request, his motivation to move is more about the community’s apparent indifference to their son’s post-battle condition. His wife Bev is too shrill and one dimensional, only occasionally showing backbone and eliciting sympathy. She is a stereotypical Mad Men – era wife.
The conceit of the play is that their neighbor is Karl, the character from Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun who attempts to pay the purchasing family not to move in.
Act 2 opens a half century later, when the tables have apparently turned. The neighborhood is on the cusp of gentrification, which means white folks are moving back in. Most of the cast has reassembled, taking on new roles but with familial connections to the original characters. The bickering about capital cities is reprised, and it eventually becomes evident that the white couple is facing some resistance to their plans to renovate. In much the way David Mamet achieved that delicate balance in Oleanna (albeit about sexual politics rather than discrimination), Norris thrusts and parries via witty dialogue. Unlike Mamet, however, there are a few too many laughs in the wrong places.
The seven member cast features several players from the original London production, so they are very comfortable with their timing. Especially effective are Wood, Damon Gupton and Annie Parisse. The scenic design by Daniel Ostling transforms the comfortable 1950s suburban living room into the yet-to-be-transformed crack house. Subtle touches drive home the transition; the solid oak front door is replaced by a solid steel door for instance.
The play is cleverly constructed and assays important issues, often with conviction. The comic relief comes a bit too often, and eases the needed strain.