1959. In their idyllic suburban house on the outskirts of Chicago, Beverly is seen busily packing her family’s goods for the upcoming move. Her austere husband Russ lounges in his recliner, feet propped on a cardboard box as he digs into a container of ice cream.
It’s Neapolitan – America’s bastardized version of spumoni – and Bev doesn’t buy Russ’ explanation that it’s derived from the Napoli culture. “I figure it’s ‘neo’, which means ‘new’, and ‘politan’, which indicates a city. A new city,” she says. And how clever playwright Bruce Norris is to relate his post-racial discussion to a frozen dessert within the first five minutes of his newest play Clybourne Park, which runs at Woolly Mammoth Theatre until April 11th.
Words – the ones we say, don’t say, replace, and avoid – are the crux of Norris’ most recent endeavor to challenge his audiences’ perceptions on race relations. The show, directed by Woolly artistic director Howard Shalwitz, is a curious extension of Lorraine Hansberry’s prized A Raisin in the Sun, which prefaces the frayed Younger family’s move into the predominately-white Clybourne Park neighborhood. Russ (Mitchell Hébert) and Bev (Jennifer Mendenhall) have decided to pack up and move after the tragic suicide of their son Kenneth – a Korean war vet whose war crimes led to a scarlet letter from the townsfolk.
Yet the neighbors cannot stop fueling their loss, with visits from pastor Jim (Michael Glenn) and the timid yet unintentionally abrasive Karl Lindner (Cody Nickell) – serving as an addendum to Hansberry’s play. – and his deaf wife (Kimberly Gilbert). Karl makes Russ, still silently grieving, aware that the next inhabitants are a black family. Arguing that their entrance to the community will start an uprising, the young overly-verbose husband begins to deflect any semblance of acceptance into an economic discussion. Meanwhile, the family’s black maid Francine (Dawn Ursula) and her husband Al (Jefferson Russell) are gratingly dragged into the conversation, dealing with the ramifications of the intolerant (Karl’s thoughtless semantics), the histrionic (Bev’s constant “connections” to Francine’s work), and the apathetic (Russ’ sorrow drowning out all reason.)
2009. The same house has been dismantled in the second act and has been purchased by a white family who plan to demolish it. Woolly set designer James Kronzer’s marked delineation of the aging house must be recognized for its verisimilitude. Reminding me of August: Osage County‘s three-tiered habitat, the house at 406 Clybourne Street holds weight as an overarching theme – things really haven’t changed under that roof.
Yuppie couple Steve and Lindsey (Nickell and Gilbert) defend their plans for the new architecture to protesting members of the neighborhood – black couple Kevin and Lena’s (Russell and Ursula). Herein begins a whirlwind of racial crises, starting with the swapping of offensive jokes to their eventual deconstruction – and destruction. But while Norris’ writing remains steadily acerbic throughout, the second act begins to cushion itself with the very same political correctness it targets. The topics of double-standards are raised, but are occasionally drowned out by laughter. This isn’t indicative of Clybourne being a pointless experiment, since Norris’ first act dominates with focus and fearlessness. Maybe the second act’s cringing tendency is just another sign of the times, proving that there is no easy discourse on race. Either way, Shalwitz’s seamless blend of comfort-crushing comedy and Chayefsky-esque performances make for another unique production in Woolly’s constantly challenging history.
Cody Nickell’s performances as Lindner and Steve have neurotic touches, reminding me of Michael Stuhlbarg – his lines loop over each other, distinct and self-assured, yet grounded in egotism. Jennifer Mendenhall’s Bev is a colorful dingbat, a disaffected June Cleaver, whose performance colors the mood of the first act. Yet her turn as ignorant pseudo-feminist Kathy in the second act falls somewhat flat, leaving the actress with cartoonish behavior and predictable puns. Eclipsed‘s Dawn Ursula plays it cool, and both her Francine and Lena maintain a cocksure attitude regarding the ignorance that surrounds them. Jeff Russell’s facial expressions have the ability to draw attention from alert audience members, while his comic timing remains on point. Mitchell Hébert’s overwhelming first act leaves the audience wishing for more after intermission, but we’re treated to him giving a brief comic turn instead – there’s a boatload of tenacity in his performance, making it a standout.
Again, Norris’ Clybourne is a tricky production to stage, as is any work regarding the topic of race. Every audience will expect something to walk away with, whether that be an intelligent analysis, a witty anecdote, or even an answer. But Norris conquers with laughter, and while it trips occasionally on its own path, the show enlightens with its obscurity. The final few minutes may trigger differing opinions from the audience, but as Bev exits the stage remarking that “things are going to change real soon,” it becomes clear that the truth is not really funny at all.
by Bruce Norris
directed by Howard Shalwitz
presented by Woolly Mammoth Theatre
reviewed by Phil Calabro
Clybourne Park closes April 11th, 2010.