Hartford Courant: Clybourne Park
Being Neighborly — And Not — In 'Clybourne Park'
The show: "Clybourne Park" at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven.
First impressions: A lot of words are spoken by the anxious, irritable, broken, disconnected, invisible and isolated characters in this fine production of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play about real estate and race. The people in Bruce Norris' fearless work talk at, by, around and through each other, sometimes hatefully, sometimes hilariously, in the two acts, set separately in 1959 and 2009.
We're in a Chicago suburban neighborhood that is on the verge of change, both in territory and in culture. The setting is the home that the Younger family is leaving to go to at the end of Lorraine Hansberry's landmark 1959 play, "A Raisin in the Sun." We don't see the Youngers in the Norris play but their shadow is all over the work, both as a pending presence and a poignant reminder of America's long journey in race relations.
The first act centers on the white middle-aged couple who is selling their home — and why — and the last ditch effort of their not-so-good neighbors to stop that closing. The second act takes a look at that same property a half century later when the now-black neighborhood is headed for white gentrification.
But easy irony isn't what Norris is after. He's after a frank, awkward, painful, funny discussion about race and even how we talk about race: the codes, evasions, euphemisms and talking points, not to mention that squirmy feeling we get when we know the talk is headed in a downward spiral.
Eric Ting's direction is smart, sharp and subtle, and his ensemble cast is terrific depicting the people in both eras. The production gives audience members a lot to think about — and talk about — long after the play is over.
Do you have to know "Raisin in the Sun" to get what's going on? Not at all, though if you do it just creates another rich layer to savor. It's clear that an African-American family is about to move into an all-white neighborhood and to some it's cause for alarm. In the second act, there's a few references to the family that lived in the house that is now up for sale, but nothing that gets in the way of Norris' story of race — and class and gender, too.
But it's not a flawless work. The play is too neat and schematic and a buried discovery in the second act and the "haunting" ending is contrived. Nevertheless, it's a dynamic, thought-provoking work that demands to be seen. And New Haven is an especially appropriate city for the subject matter, too, with its history of redevelopment.
The cast?: Solid. Dan Jenkins has the most dramatic character change in the two acts, playing the pained father in the first act and a chatty contractor in the second. Alice Ripley is touching as the struggling mother-wife and plays a savvy lawyer in the second act with great comic skill. Alex Moggridge gets bonus points for playing different types of fools so skillfully. Jimmy Davis well plays a duplicitous prelate in the first, and the seen-it-all Realtor in the second. I especially enjoyed Lucy Owen's hysterically funny takes in both acts as pregnant wives of profoundly insensitive husbands.
Melle Powers navigates the trickier part of the maid in the first act and a neighborhood activist with a personal stake in the second with grace and humor. LeRoy McClain plays her husband in both acts with nuance and distinction.
Who will like it?: Fans of "Raisin in the Sun" (at least this fan); political and social activists though they might find parts uncomfortable as well. (Norris artfully avoids singing to the choir.)
Who won't?: Those who miss segregation.
For the kids?: A bit of rough talk here and there but the issues the play raises trump that caveat. Sharp high schoolers will find it compelling, especially since so many read "Raisin in the Sun" in class anyway. They are, after all, the ones who will be continuing this country's race conversation for some time to come.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Good defenses make for good neighbors; well hardly. Norris' provocative play breaks down the barriers through cracks of language
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: Interesting to note how the first and last plays of Long Wharf Theatre's season deals with race in different ways. "Satchmo at the Waldorf" is a solo show about a beloved celebrity and unmasks the racial conflicts that Louis Armstrong faced until his death in the 1971. With "Clybourne Park," those themes are updated to the present.
The basics: The show runs through June 2 at 222 Sargent Drive in New Haven. The running time is two hours, with one intermission. Information: 203-787-4282 and http://www.longwharf.org.