Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A little white man goes to jail, and he’s put in a cell with a big black guy. Wait, let’s try another: What’s long and hard — hmm…better not repeat that one. Okay: How is a white woman like a — oh no! Can’t finish that one either. If you want to hear how these unprintable jokes end — and see a riveting Pulitzer Prize-winning play — you’ll just have to go to Clybourne Park at Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theatre.
The aforementioned jokes may be questionably funny — high-minded liberal mom-to-be Lindsey (Annie Parisse) calls them ”disgusting,” ”juvenile,” and products of ”the worst possible type of obsolete bulls— stereotypes.” (We know she’s liberal because she tells us: ”Half of my friends are black” and ”I used to date a black guy.”) Bruce Norris’ drama, however, is indisputably, uproariously funny, and a quietly evocative mediation on the by-no-means-obsolete stereotypes that pervade millennial melting-pot America.
Make no mistake: Clybourne Park isn’t a two-hour stream of offensive racial humor. Norris, whose previous works tackled such touchy subjects as a venereal-disease-plagued 4-year-old girl (2004’s cracking satire The Pain and the Itch), may be a provocateur but he’s also a clever writer who doesn’t push buttons simply for the sake of starting a war of words. He knows how to create characters and then root both issues and prejudice deep inside them. He also knows when to borrow a character — and a detail or two: Clybourne begins in 1959 at 406 Clybourne Street, the house purchased by the family in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Norris brings in Raisin’s Karl Lindner, the self-appointed head of the white welcome wagon (played to icky perfection by Jeremy Shamos). But he fills out the play’s cozy three-bedroom bungalow with his own inventions: maid Francine (Crystal A. Dickinson) and her husband, Albert (Damon Gupton); local minister Jim (Brendan Griffin); Lindner’s deaf pregnant wife, Betsy (Parisse); and Bev (Christina Kirk) and Karl (Frank Wood), the couple who’ve unknowingly sold their home to ”colored” people. ”But isn’t it possible that they’re…I don’t know, Mediterranean, or —?” Bev asks hopefully. Norris also crafts a calamitous story that haunts 406 Clybourne and helps explain why the Youngers were able to afford the upscale home in the first place. (As Lena says in Raisin: ”Them houses they put up for colored in them areas way out all seem to cost twice as much as other houses.”) And when Karl locks up and buries that tragic tale — literally, in a trunk, in the backyard, under a crepe myrtle tree — you know someone is going to dig it up.
Fast forward through 50 (unseen) years of changing demographics, economic trouble, drugs, violence, and aesthetic deterioration of the neighborhood. In Act 2, 406 Clybourne is not quite as warm and welcoming. Graffiti cheapens the walls, plaster is crumbling, doors are unhinged, windows busted…and it’s now the white people who want a piece of the gentrification pie. (We know Clybourne is a newly desirable neighborhood because it has a Whole Foods.) Steve (Shamos again) and his pregnant wife, Lindsey (Parisse), plan to tear down 406; homeowners’ association reps Lena (Dickinson) and husband Kevin (Gupton) take issue; meeting moderator Tom (Griffin) spends his time taking phone calls; and lawyer Kathy is of no use to anyone, unless ”you ever need to know where to find a doctor at two in the morning in the capital of Morocco when your husband is doubled over with dysentery.” This is where the oral fireworks really start to fly, as terms like tribe, territorial, de Tocqueville, tap dance, ghetto, and, oh yeah, racism, are tossed about like verbal grenades. It’s the conversational equivalent of a slasher movie: Don’t go there, don’t finish that sentence, don’t step into that — you’re going to get destroyed!
Thankfully, Pam MacKinnon’s crackerjack production hasn’t lost any of its punch since its 2010 premiere at Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons; in fact, it’s tighter, a touch faster paced, and even more unflinchingly intense. And actors have only improved (though improvement was by no means necessary). Dickinson makes Lena ever so slightly more sympathetic; Kirk is even more beautifully clueless in both her roles; and Shamos, an always terrific, long-unheralded actor, is a poker-faced marvel as both Karl and Steve.
Since you’re wondering, yes, the trunk does get dug up. Boorish demolition man Dan (Wood) unearths it because Lindsey and Steve are installing — scenic status symbol alert! — a koi pond. It’s not filled with, as Dan speculates, ”Spanish doubloons.” But it does contain a sort of theatrical treasure — not unlike Clybourne Park itself. A
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