Gregory Wallace (seated), René Augesen (standing, left) and Manoel Felciano in “Clybourne Park”
Photo by Erik Tomasson
By Bruce Norris
Directed by Jonathan Moscone
American Conservatory Theater (ACT)
Jan. 26-Feb. 20, 2011
Race and real estate have a long and ugly history together. Housing projects, ghettoizing and restrictive covenants were a prominent feature on the landscape of the last century, notably spotlighted in Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.” Playwright Bruce Norris has taken off from that seminal work for “Clybourne Park,” a fanciful look at the Younger family’s groundbreaking purchase of a house “in the wrong neighborhood” from the seller’s point of view. And then he fast-forwards 50 years for the second act, a hilarious study of political correctness, gentrification and our hypocrisy about our opinion of others. And, in case you didn’t get it, he’s talking about today, folks.
The resulting work, which has been received with acclaim both in Chicago, where it is set, and London, is a mixed bag of tragedy and comedy: more tragic with some wildly comic moments in Act I, and just the opposite after intermission. Performed by a crackerjack ensemble cast, expertly directed by California Shakespeare Theater artistic head Jonathan Moscone, it’s a highly entertaining—if sometimes uncomfortable—night in the theater. The playwright actually is concerned with his audiences’ comfort zone—to the extent that he veers outside of it as often as he can. It is a rueful laughter wrung from his dialogue, but funny all the same.
Bev (René Augesen) and Russ (Anthony Fusco) are moving away from a neighborhood that holds unhappy memories. Unbeknownst to them, the house has been sold to an African-American family (the Youngers of the Hansberry play). In the course of a moving afternoon, surrounded by packing boxes, they are visited by their platitude-spouting priest (Manoel Felciano) and neighbor Karl (Richard Thieriot) and his very pregnant wife, Betsy (Emily Kitchens). The scene is completed by the long-suffering family maid (Omozé Idehenre) and her clueless husband (Gregory Wallace), who ultimately are subjected to the racial rant of neighbor Karl, who has found out about the buyers and made a counter-offer to keep them off the street.
Each is riveting in his or her own way: Fusco, who begins as a nice, kind of detached guy, and ends up as an obscenity-spouting tiger in defense of his turf; Kitchens, hilarious as the pregnant lady who happens to be deaf (or as we say nowadays, hearing impaired); Wallace, as the innocent bystander who watches his life being trampled upon; and, especially Thieriot, whose offensive diatribe cannot be turned off, even when he is thrown out of the house. The women played by Augesen and Idehenre have known tragedy together, and they are more nuanced in their portrayals. But they have their funny moments too, especially over a hand-me-down chafing dish. Wallace gets the last word on that one: “Ma’am, we don’t want your things. We got our own things.” It’s a telling moment.
These people will return transformed in the second act as the house (set design by Ralph Funicello) is transformed from a cozy 1950s bungalow to a virtual tear-down in the throes of a hip renovation (see video clip below). Kitchens (still pregnant) and Thieriot are the buyers this time with the laid back Wallace and a caustic, defensive Idehenre as the neighbors who are resistant to see their beloved neighborhood “going to the whites.” Augesen is the lawyer for the buyers and Felciano for the homeowner’s association. In the funniest switch of all, Fusco drifts in as a good ol’ boy tradesman, working on the house. The task is going over the building code with reference to the renovation in progress, and good luck with that.
The changing times are reflected not only in the expressed attitudes of the characters, but also in the costumes, by Katherine Roth, the music that is played when the curtain goes up and down and in the style of the writing, which mimics Hansberry (and sometimes a ’50s sitcom) in the first act and is heavy on sound bites, unfinished sentences and catch phrases like “I totally agree” in the second. The core issues— race and, to a lesser extent, women’s rights—are identical. And, OMG, nothing much has changed. It’s very funny and very insightful and would be totally perfect if not for a brief coda at the end that harks back to the tragedy that prompted the first sale. It’s not necessary and a bit of a downer after the manic energy that has gone before. One wishes the playwright had resisted the urge to bring things full circle. But one can’t have everything and, in “Clybourne Park,” you still get quite a lot.