Saturday, September 15, 2012

Knocking it Out of the Park

In all the press I've read on Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park, his Pulitzer, Tony, and Olivier Award-winning play about race, class, and the history of postwar home ownership in urban America, no one has talked very much about how well-made it is. The focus has mostly been on Act Two's toxic humour, and what it reveals about the unleashed collective id of Americans, who even in 2009 (when Act Two is set), and with an African-American in the White House, remain deeply divided racially and economically. That unleashing is certainly part of the guilty pleasure of watching Norris' play, currently on at the Arts Club's Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage in a crackling and superbly-acted production directed by Janet Wright. Returning from intermission, audiences are given permission to laugh uproariously at a succession of increasingly offensive jokes by the black and white neighbours who gradually shed all pretense of politeness in each other's company. However, I'm not sure the ideas behind the comedy are as profound as some reviewers have made out, and the retreat to the 1950s setting of the play's first act in the epilogue seems in some respects a flight from the politics of the present as consequential as the grieving Bev and Russ's planned flight to the suburbs.

That said, the relationship between the play's two acts is a structural marvel, with Norris constructing echoes of Act One in Act Two that are complex and nuanced rather than merely showy, and creating enough connection and distance between his characters to provide rich opportunities of discovery for both the audience and performers. The wonder begins with how seamlessly Norris evokes a parallel play world to one of the classics of modern American drama, Lorraine Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun. Bev (the wonderful Deborah Williams) and Russ (a perfectly coiled Andrew Wheeler) are a fifty-something white couple packing up their house in the Chicago neighbourhood of the play's title. It's 1959, and they are preparing to move to the suburbs, ostensibly to be closer to Russ' work, but as much to escape painful family memories associated with the house they've just sold, where their son, Kenneth, a Korean War vet, committed suicide in an upstairs bedroom. The local minister, Jim (the multi-tasking Sebastien Archibald), is on hand at Bev's insistence in order to coax Russ into opening up about his grief for his son. However, it is the arrival of Karl (the magnificently fulminating Robert Moloney) and his deaf wife, Betsy (Sasa Brown, skirting caricature with expert precision), that really begins to upset whatever peace remains within this domestic space.

For Karl is none other than Karl Linder, the white representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association (CPIA) who pays a visit to the Younger family in Hansberry's play in an attempt to dissuade them from moving into the all-white neighbourhood of which he is chief guardian. In Norris' play, Karl reveals to Russ and Bev that, unbeknownst to them, they have just sold their house to a black family (the Youngers), and wants to persuade them to let the CPIA buy it back--not because he's racist, of course (after all, he is au courant enough to mix it up with his references to Coloreds and Negroes), but because he feels Clybourne Park will simply prove to be too alien an environment for the Youngers, who presumably won't be ably to buy the food they like to eat at Gelmann's Grocery Store. All of this is conveyed as an object lesson in urban planning and social demographics by conscripting Bev and Russ' black domestic, Francine (Marci T. House, who is a revelation, and not just because of what she does with the most out-there joke from Act Two), and her husband, Albert (Daren Herbert, whose timing with Norris' one-liners is as adeptly cutting as his singing and dancing was smoothly graceful in this summer's Music Man at TUTS) into a conversation about why they surely would never want to live alongside white folks. Really, however, Karl is worried about what having a black family in the neighbourhood will do to property values, predicting that should other families of colour follow the Youngers' example, then there will be an exodus of white families, and the entire neighbourhood will become a black ghetto. But Russ is having none of Karl's posturing, noting that the white tribe of Clybourne Park's exclusive inclusivity didn't extend to embracing his war-damaged son.

Act Two opens fifty years later, and we learn that the scenario painted by Karl has indeed come to pass. Clybourne Park is now a predominantly black neighbourhood, one whose recent decline and proximity to downtown make it increasingly attractive to young gentrifying white couples. Enter Lindsey and Steve (Brown and Moloney), who have just purchased the old Younger house, and whose plans to renovate have got their black neighbours, Lena and Kevin (House and Herbert), up in arms. Together with their respective lawyers, Kathy (Williams) and Tom (Archibald), the two couples are attempting to make their way through a multi-page document that is to go before the new CPIA, and about which they are trying to reach certain compromise. But compromise, along with politeness, very quickly goes out the window as each couple's circumlocutions around easements and property lines, and where they've vacationed, and what's the capital of Morocco, is overturned by Steve's insistence that Lena's speech about the historical value of the neighbourhood is really a conversation about race. That's when the dangerous jokes start flying, and when everyone (except for the oblivious handy-man, Dan, played by Wheeler) is mutually offended we know for sure we're "in America"--as Maria from West Side Story might say (and the soundtrack at the start and end of each act is just one of the subtle period details that make this production so good).

Norris' dialogue is not just furiously funny, but also fast, and often overlapping, and the entire cast is uniformly up to task in their timing. Inevitably some lines got eaten by audience laughter, but in a play that's all about who gets to speak, when, and for and to whom, this becomes a structuring conceit in and of itself. Relatedly, one of the most enjoyable aspects of the play is how realistically Norris captures the internal dynamics of couples' communication (and, just as frequently, miscommunication), with Lindsay and Kevin each struggling in vain at certain points to ward off what they know will be offensive volleys from their partners. A similar marvel comes from how physical Wright manages to make what, blocking-wise, is a fairly static second act. Essentially all the actors are sitting in chairs (or on boxes) stretched horizontally across the stage. And, indeed, for most of the act only Lindsey and Steve, punctuated by the odd interruption of Dan, roam around the stage, visually establishing a proprietary claim to their new territory. But that doesn't mean the others recede into the background, and it's a tribute to Wright's expertly kinesthetic direction that you feel at any moment any one of the actors might leap up and throw a punch.

The punches in Norris' play stay--just barely--at the verbal level. But that doesn't make them any less hard-hitting. Like all great comedy, he first flays you with his wit. And then he makes you gasp at what is concealed behind it.


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