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‘Clybourne Park’: A play about communication and the ways, reasons we avoid it

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By DANTE J.J. BEVILACQUA
For 21st Century Media
Bruce Norris’ Tony/Pulitzer-winning play “Clybourne Park” centers on the house in the all-white neighborhood made famous by “A Raisin in the Sun.”
The first act dovetails with Lorraine Hansberry’s famous play in time and plot. It’s a peek into what is happening in the house the Youngers intend to inhabit.
In the second act, playwright Norris places the same cast playing different characters in the house as it has become 50 years later. Unfortunately, what the house loses in property value parallels it’s dramatic potential.

A scene from "Clybourne Park" on stage at  Playcrafters of Skippack through June 21. Submitted photo

A scene from “Clybourne Park” on stage at Playcrafters of Skippack through June 21. Submitted photo

The fact that Norris efficiently dashes the cautious hopes raised by Hansberry in “Raisin” suggests that “Clybourne Park” is a downer and the uneven pace of this production seems to take it in that direction.
I have to be honest: A play with the dark vision of “Clybourne Park” may not be your cup of tea. Some may prefer to spend a warm summer evening on something a bit more lighthearted and uplifting.
Beyond the heated subjects of prejudice and neighborhood transformation, “Clybourne Park” is a play about communication and the ways and reasons in which we avoid it. I should also say that for a play with such serious and tension-filled subjects, it can be surprisingly funny.
The play begins in 1959, but it centers instead on the white couple that have just sold their house.
But ditzy Bev (played by Michele Nicolay) and brooding Russ (Ben Fried) don’t know the new family is black, so community representative Karl (Greg Kasander) visits them in an attempt to halt the sale.
The second act skips forward 50 years, with the bungalow fallen into disrepair — broken blinds, dirty molding, peeling wallpaper. In those intervening years, white flight has transformed the area’s demographics, and now a white couple (Greg Kasander and Natalie Merlino) hopes to move into the developing area.
The characters in “Clybourne Park” are marvels of inarticulateness and inappropriateness. They repeat themselves constantly, interrupt each other (and often interrupt themselves), erupt in frustration, tell shockingly bad jokes about “big black men” and tampons, and nervously tiptoe around the obvious questions.
Quite clearly, the difficult rhythms and off-key melodies of the spoken dialogue make this a supreme challenge for any community theater group to tackle.
Nicolay portrays the bruised but naively hopeful housewife Bev, who serves as emotional barometer of Act I, and the no-nonsense lawyer Kathy, the dry comedic backstop of Act II.
Kasander accents the fussy and supercilious in his portrayal of Karl, the 1950s homeowner’s-association heavy, then the flustered defensiveness of Steve, the well-meaning modern white Everydude.
As Russ, the grieving father in Act I, Ben Fried progresses from evasive to exasperated to volcanic; then as the chatty but largely ignored workingman in Act II.
Amelia Wallace, makes the most of restraint, first as a circumspect housekeeper, then as a well-heeled neighborhood activist skeptical of both the large and small forces advancing gentrification. She is joined by Jerry McGrier in the dual roles of Albert in the first act and Kevin in the second. Especially effective in this cast is Michael Covel, first as the well-intentioned young priest and then distinctly different as the community activist.
Great expectations are quickly deflated in this play. Signaling the playwright’s disinterest in nuance, every one of the white characters are clueless on the issue of race.
One might expect that a play that had won all the big prizes — the Pulitzer, the UK’s Olivier, and the Tony award for best play — would be more an illuminating drama rather than a farce that climaxes in a joke-fest; more specifically, a racist joke-fest, each “joke” more offensive than the previous one.
Many of the gags are clichés — a white housewife trying to foist her chafing dish onto her black maid, or the old “some of my best friends” defense. Others, told by whites about blacks and by blacks about whites, are of the locker-room variety that most people stop laughing at by the 9th grade. As Lena says after one particularly crude joke, “It’s not funny,” then proceeds to tell a vulgar one of her own.
What’s going to happen after the final blowup? Who knows? Norris doesn’t answer the questions he raises, and it’s really not the play’s job to do so. It’s enough to set the questions in motion.
And there are many pointed questions about race relations, class relations, our attitudes toward anyone “different,” and the inability of even the most intelligent, best-intentioned people to discuss any of the above without misspeaking, misunderstanding, and arguing.
It’s a tough job tackled by a mature and reliable cast who give this show a very down to earth staging.

IF YOU GO
WHAT: Clybourne Park
WHERE: Playcrafters of Skippack 2011 Store Road, Skippack
WHEN: Through June 21
TICKETS: $17.
INFO.: Call (610) 584-4005 or check playcrafters.org.

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Mike Berman