There is always that one play that captures attention at a national or international level. It hits a nerve and becomes dominant in the cultural zeitgeist. That play is talked about for a couple of years because of powerful productions in prominent theatre cities. It wins Tony Awards. It wins Olivier Awards. Sometimes it wins the Pulitzer Prize. Then it is tucked away like a nice museum piece, and the world moves on. Almost all of that is true for Houston native Bruce Norris' CLYBOURNE PARK. Except this provocative, insightful, and humorous play, I predict, will not be tucked away. It will not be some untouched museum piece awaiting a flashy revival. This fiery comedy that is more of a well-polished mirror than theatrical exhibition has a long future of production ahead of it. Walking out of the opening night performance at The Alley, I understood all of the hype surrounding this piece. Simply put, CLYBOURNE PARK is must see social commentary.
Bruce Norris' script invites audiences into the living room of the very house that Lorraine Hansberry's Younger family from A RAISIN IN THE SUN is purchasing. It is 1959 and the original owners are moving to the suburbs, escaping the daily grind of living near downtown Chicago. After meeting the Youngers and offering to buy them out, Karl Linder appeals to Bev and Russ to prevent the African-American family from buying the house. Karl Linder and the other members of the neighborhood worry that the bargain sale in addition to the new African-American neighbors will cause all the homes in Clybourne Park to depreciate in value. Skip ahead to 2009, and a white family is attempting to purchase the run down house. Clybourne Park, now an all-black neighborhood is undergoing gentrification. An African-American couple and representatives of the neighborhood association is opposed to the plans to tear down and rebuild on the property because of the history that will be erased. The propriety of the conversation quickly devolves into a battle over racial issues that are intrinsically rooted into the American psyche and experience. It is 50 years later and the giant elephants of race, race relations, and racial tensions are still present in the room.
Under the direction of James Black, the play clips along at break neck speed. It induces riotous laughter as the audience is quickly exposed the social problems that exist in both acts of the play, many of which are unchanged in the face of the 50 year time span. With skilled precision, James Black allows CLYBOURNE PARK to be held up as a pristinely polished, gleaming mirror to the audience. As we laugh, we know we are all complicit in and guilty of similar, if not the same, cracks in our own faulty social mores. James Black ensures that every humorous line and every emotionally charged line fall equal gravity and weight into the audiences' laps. Like Brue Norris, James Black doesn't solve the problems for us, but ensures that we leave the theatre highly aware and talking of the various social issues presented.
As a whole, the ensemble cast is spectacular in their commitments to decisive and utterly realistic characterizations. They each play two roles, expect Jay Sullivan who plays three. However, more interesting and impressive than that is how despite the 50 year gap their characters share similar personality traits.
Jeffrey Bean's Russ and Dan are both self-centered to a flaw. They engage in conversation actively, but tune out parts they feel are unnecessary. Likewise, they both obsess over the foot locker, but for different reasons. While funny in the first act, the audience is floored by the embarrassingly public emotional break that Russ undergoes. Here the audience sees Jeffrey Bean at his finest with explosive dialogue and mannerisms perfectly intertwined for devastating emotional affect. In the second act, he brings the house down as blunt, crass, treasure seeking Dan. While mostly off stage in the second act, Jeffrey Bean's adroitly timed jocular punch lines and sight gags are delightful, showstopping morsels of comedic genius.