The address 406 Clybourne Street has a special resonance in the theater.
That's the place that offers a better life in Lorraine Hansberry's play "A Raisin in the Sun" – a sunny home with a garden in a white enclave where the black Younger family in 1959 plan to move in order to escape Chicago's South Side poverty.
What happened to them there is unknown.
Enter Bruce Norris. His sly, edgy gem "Clybourne Park," which opened Thursday at the Walter Kerr Theatre, is also set at 406 Clybourne Street. Act I picks up where Hansberry left off, and Act 2 jumps to 2009, when the house is about to be demolished, but its legacy is no less emotionally charged.
"Clybourne Park" is everything you want in a play: Smart, witty, provocative and wonderfully acted by the well-knit ensemble of Crystal A. Dickinson, Brendan Griffin, Damon Gupton, Christina Kirk, Annie Parisse, Jeremy Shamos and Frank Wood. Director Pam MacKinnon lets each actor shine, pulls out the humor and is a master at the slow boil.
Separated by 50 years, the two acts of the play could conceivably stand alone, but they ingeniously connect through fragments of dialogue and neighborhood characters. Both parts end in everyone screaming, feelings hurt and couples bickering. No one is really listening to anyone else. It's terrific.
The play opens in 1959 with moving boxes littering 406 Clybourne Street. The owners – a white couple played by Kirk and Wood – are leaving the white neighborhood after feeling slighted.
They've sold their house to the Youngers, which triggers a sort of last-ditch intervention from a priest (Griffin) and an unhappy white neighbor Karl (Shamos) and his deaf wife (Parisse). Their argument: If a black family moves in, property values will plummet.
Dragged into an increasingly ugly spat on this afternoon is a black maid (Dickinson) and her even-keeled husband (Gupton). To prove that the races really shouldn't be mixed, Karl – who visited the Youngers in "A Raisin in the Sun" to try to dissuade them from moving into this house – tries to show that blacks eat differently, think differently, are different. "Do you ski?" he asks the maid.
The second act fast-forwards to 2009 and much has changed – or has it? The once-white enclave of Clybourne Park, we learn, became a black neighborhood over time, and 406 Clybourne Street is about to be demolished. Poverty and crack have hurt the neighborhood, but it's on the upswing again, with a Whole Foods moved in. Gentrification is in full swing.
A yuppie couple (Shamos and Parisse) plan to build a new home – and a koi pond – on the lot, which has triggered a last-ditch visit by a black couple (Dickinson and Gupton) who represent the homeowners association and have a family connection to the Youngers. Kirk plays a lawyer and Griffin a Realtor.
Now, the issue at hand is respecting history. The white couple – Steve and Lindsey – want to build a larger-than-normal home, and the black couple want to make sure the new owners build within the guidelines of what makes Clybourne Park so distinctive.
What does that really mean?
"Jesus, maybe we oughta save ourselves some time and, and, and, and just... say what it is we're really saying instead of doing this elaborate little dance around it," says Steve. "It's race. Isn't it?"
And that's how this meeting descends into screaming matches, inappropriate jokes, racial slurs and threats of violence. Fifty years on, Norris seems to be saying, and we are no closer to closing our racial wounds. And the inclusion of more voices – women are no longer deaf or powerless and a gay character is introduced in 2009 – has actually created even more of a din as the outrage increases.
Daniel Ostling's set for 406 Clybourne is masterful – Eisenhower-era decor in Act 1 and a graffiti-defaced one in Act 2. No detail is unchanged, even the metal numbers on the wooden front door in 1959 that become stickers on a metal security door in 2009.
The cast and their director have been together since the play debuted at Playwrights Horizons in early 2010, and it shows. There is an ease and richness to the way each actor has mastered their own timing and motivation. Overlapping dialogue is handled like a ballet.
Hard as it is to single out one actor for the highest praise, it has to be Shamos, who plays Karl with a mannered nerdiness and Steve with such a panicky exasperation that the audience as a whole seems to want to go up on stage, slap him and end his misery in each act.
The playwright weaves lovely little webs through the two acts – for example, both groups stumble over naming foreign capitals and both have to come to terms with a footlocker. And yes, whether or not black people can ski makes a snide return.
The play won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize and it is likely to keep winning this Tony season. Norris has found a deep, rich vein to mine at the intersection of race and real estate. It has found a natural home on Broadway that few neighbors will complain about.
The spiky comedy about race and gentrification “Clybourne Park” arrives on Broadway with a Pulitzer Prize and the same mission it had when it ran in 2010 at Playwrights Horizons: To make you laugh, squirm and think. It succeeds on all counts.
Welcome to the neighborhood!
On second viewing it’s still impressive how writer Bruce Norris uses Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” as the gateway to his play, in which one cast portrays two different sets of characters 50 years apart.
In “Raisin,” a black family buys a home in a white Chicago enclave in 1959.
Norris imagines Bev and Russ (Christina Kirk and Frank Wood), the couple unloading the house at 406 Clybourne St., because, it emerges, of a tragedy involving their war-vet son.
Enter Karl Lindner (Jeremy Shamos), who appears in Hansberry’s drama. He believes blacks on his block will devalue his property. When his protests fail he asks a local white priest (Brendan Griffin) and Bev’s black maid (Crystal A. Dickinson) to convince Russ that races mustn’t mix. A brawl ensues.
In the second half, set in 2009, Clybourne Park is a depressed black hood. White yuppies Lindsey and Steve (Annie Parisse and Shamos) own the dump at 406, which they’re razing to build a dream house taller than all the others in sight.
But not so fast. Black neighbors Lena and Kevin (Dickinson and Damon Gupton) represent the community association and oppose their sky-high plans.
Civility fades and a haunting scene from ’59 reminds that history leaves an indelible mark.
Norris (“The Pain and the Itch”) doesn’t waste words or mince them. His script is lean and mean and raises smart ideas about great divides between races, classes and sexes. He also lands some stinging swats at lame political correctness.
Pam MacKinnon guides a first-class design team and a cast of seven, who reprise roles from 2010 and are terrific top-to-bottom. Each actor delivers vividly varied characters as they leap through eras and tonal shifts, including the sometimes too cartoony first act.
Outside the Walter Kerr, where “Clybourne Park” is rattling nerves, mock street signs cleverly spell out the title of the play in white letters set against black and in black letters against white. The X-shaped intersecting signs mark a crossroad, seemingly an inevitable place for change. Nope, not always.
The new Broadway show “Clybourne Park” is about cultural stereotypes and race relations.
Wait, don’t run away!
Bruce Norris’ play is also razor-sharp and funny as hell.
When some characters unleash a barrage of offensive jokes in the second act, the Walter Kerr Theatre is shaking with gales of “I can’t believe I’m hearing this” laughter.
That scene is all the more explosive because the tension has been building for, oh, 50 years.
Norris’ Pulitzer winner starts off as a high-concept riff on Lorraine Hansberry’s classic “A Raisin in the Sun”: The first half takes place in the title’s Chicago neighborhood in 1959, where “Raisin” lets off.
In Hansberry’s play, an African-American family tries to buy a house in a white area. Here, Norris gives us the point of view of the sellers, the stoic Russ (Frank Wood) and his chatty, seemingly birdbrained wife, Bev (Christina Kirk).
As we gradually learn, they’re grieving over the loss of their soldier son, and want to move away from their memories. So Russ has zero patience for his neighbor Karl (Jeremy Shamos), who tries to stop the sale because the buyers are “colored.”
Dragged into the fight are the couple’s black maid (Crystal A. Dickinson) and her husband (Damon Gupton) — they’re like a reverse version of Bev and Russ: She’s quietly boiling while he’s outgoing.
In the second half, we’ve zoomed ahead to 2009.
After being proudly black for half a century, Clybourne Park has fallen on hard times. The house is now a graffiti-covered wreck, but a couple of bargain-hunting yuppies (Shamos and Annie Parisse, who also played his deaf wife in Act 1) see a golden opportunity. Their gentrifying plans include a koi pond.
This time, the ones defending their neighborhood’s character are Lena (Dickinson) and Kevin (Gupton), a couple from the local homeowners association.
Under Pam McKinnon’s sharp direction, the ensemble, which created the show at Playwrights Horizons two years ago, vividly renders different yet oddly similar characters over a 50-year gap.
Shamos particularly shines as men who act surprised by the reactions — ranging from squirming to outraged — they provoke.
Norris has an especially keen ear for PC talk on both sides of the racial divide, and how everybody’s just out to protect their turf.
In 1959, Karl advises Russ against “disregarding the needs of the people who live in a community.” In 2009, it’s Lena who warns the newcomers and their architect (Kirk) that “there’s just a lot of pride, and a lot of memories in these houses.”
Without making a big deal of it — this isn’t a show that rams a message down your throat — Norris suggests that no one, whether neighbors, family or friends, actually listens to each other.
Karl’s wife may be hearing-impaired, but in “Clybourne Park,” many are hilariously, sadly, tone-deaf.
“Is this safe?” the man asks, as he guardedly takes a seat on a packing crate in the first act of “Clybourne Park,” Bruce Norris’s sharp-witted, sharp-toothed comedy of American uneasiness. Oh, foolish mortal. Of course it isn’t safe. You’re about to start talking about (can I say the word?) race. You might as well be running blindfolded through a minefield.
It’s been more than two years since “Clybourne Park” was first staged in New York, Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. In the interim, a lot has happened both to this play — which opened Thursday night on Broadway in a superlative production at the Walter Kerr Theater — and this country. The play has picked up a Pulitzer Prize and traveled all over the place, including to London, where it won the Olivier Award.
As for this country, well just think of what it’s heard since the winter of 2010: the divisive shouting over the killing of the African-American youth Trayvon Martin; the horrified gasps over the charges that an American soldier massacred Afghan civilians; and the warm bath of applause that greeted the movie “The Help,” a sentimental story of black domestic workers and their employers in the South.
Though those events were all in the future when “Clybourne Park” was written, this play addresses them all, or at least what they stand for. Usually, when a work is as topical as this one is, it has a limited shelf life. Yet returning to “Clybourne Park” — which features its original excellent cast and sure-footed director, Pam MacKinnon — I realized that this play probably will be topical for many years to come. That’s bad news for America, but good news for theatergoers, as “Clybourne Park” proves itself more vital and relevant than ever on a big Broadway stage.
The very structure of “Clybourne Park” posits the idea of a nation (and even a world) trapped in a societal purgatory of ineptitude and anxiety. The play’s first act is set in a recently sold middle-class house in Chicago in 1959; the second act takes place in the same house (which has been recently resold) in 2009.
And by the way that house in Clybourne Park (still a segregated neighborhood in the late 1950s) is the very one that the Younger family was set to move into at the end of “A Raisin in the Sun,” Lorraine Hansberry’s watershed drama from 1959. In the two parts of “Clybourne Park” two other families are on the verge of moving. But Mr. Norris makes it stingingly clear that this is not the same as moving onward or upward.
That he efficiently dashes the cautious hopes raised by Hansberry in “Raisin” would seem to suggest that “Clybourne Park” is a downer. On the contrary, it’s far too funny and stimulating to be that.
Like the tamer comedies of Yasmina Reza (particularly “God of Carnage”) “Clybourne Park” provides the eternal and undeniable satisfactions of watching supposedly civilized people behaving like territorial savages. But Mr. Norris cuts deeper than Ms. Reza, and he’s not nearly as whimsical or as polite.
Black or white, male or female, every one of the characters in “Clybourne Park” is a jerk. (We can’t print what would be the real mot juste.) And I would argue that according to Mr. Norris being a jerk is the human condition. (Check out his earlier comedy, “The Pain and the Itch,” if you have any doubts.)
That’s because his people exist in a state of constant irritation with one another. They’re lonely, so they need the company. But whenever they’re together, they chafe. What’s more, they all speak different languages, even within a single family. Which means that whenever they try to say the right thing, it’s going to sound dead wrong to somebody else.
Both sections of “Clybourne Park” (each acted by the same seven-member ensemble) begin in states of suppressed tension. In the first act Bev and Russ (Christina Kirk and Frank Wood, superb as people warped in different ways by loneliness) are just days away from leaving the place they have lived for many years. (Their living room has been designed with anthropological detail by Daniel Ostling, and Ilona Somogyi created the period-exact costumes.) They’ve known tragedy in that home, and it’s time to get away.
They don’t know even know that it’s an African-American family, the (unseen) Youngers, to whom they’ve sold the place. But the officious Karl (Jeremy Shamos, portraying the only character also in “Raisin”), who lives in the area with his wife, Betsy (Annie Parisse), does, and he is determined to stop the sale. (Betsy is deaf, which means she hears about as accurately as anybody else in this play.)
This leads to the kind of verbal donnybrook in which people who dislike one another to begin with are saddled with a flammable subject. Jim, the sermonizing young minister (Brendan Griffin), extends the debate to include Francine (Crystal A. Dickinson), Bev’s African-American maid, and her husband, Albert (Damon Gupton).
The second act finds the same house, 50 years later, about to be leveled, so a young professional couple (Ms. Parisse and Mr. Shamos) can build there. In the meantime, though, the neighborhood has known many changes. And a local (thoroughly middle-class) black couple (Ms. Dickinson and Mr. Gupton) have some objections to the newcomers’ plans. Their disapproval is initially expressed tentatively and tactfully. But in “Clybourne Park” tact is the first and inevitable casualty of conversation.
Mr. Norris uses some fairly hoary dramatic contrivances (like a trunk that’s buried in one act and unearthed in the second) to connect this diptych. But the implicit parallels in speech and sensibility between then and now are brilliantly set up and thought through.
Both acts feature ostensibly minor arguments about the names of foreign capitals that in both cases confirm how geocentric his characters truly are, no matter how well traveled.
And whatever the decade, Mr. Norris has a merciless ear for the clichés to which desperate people resort when they don’t know what they’re saying. (Talking about falling into “the same euphemistic tap dance,” as Mr. Shamos’s second-act character puts it, is only one unfortunate example.)
Mr. Norris suggests, via a subplot about what happened to Bev and Russ’s son (a solider in the Korean War), that the friction on display here doesn’t stop at the walls of 406 Clybourne Street. War is the logical extension of the conflicts acted out in a single living room.
“It’s all right, nothing’s broken,” a character says after a scuffle in the first act. But of course something’s broken; perhaps it’s always been broken. And despite the sadly, patronizingly well-meaning Bev’s hope that someday we might “all sit down together at one big table” and work things out, Mr. Norris isn’t making any reassuring promises in this strong, ferociously smart play.
If the walls in the modest bungalow in this ever-changing Chicago neighborhood could talk, they would be crabby. And why not?
In the 50 years delineated with such deft brutality and merciless amusement in Bruce Norris' Pulitzer-winning "Clybourne Park," these walls have provided thin shelter and silent witness for generations of fury, fragile dreams and, most of all, recriminations both petty and profound.
The play -- which opened Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 2010 before regional stagings, an Olivier from London and the Pulitzer -- has finally gotten to Broadway with director Pam MacKinnon's original impeccable production and cast. While the tragicomedy struck me two years ago as a bit tidy compared with Norris' earlier and more dangerously messy "The Pain and the Itch," I'm now appreciating "Clybourne Park" on its own important and enjoyable terms.
And what terms they are. Norris places us in the house in the white neighborhood where, in 1959, the black family in Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" was preparing to move. Only this time, we are privy to the dramas roiling the white family moving out. In the second act, we jump a half-century to a meeting in the decaying house between black middle-class neighbors and the white yuppies planning to build a big new house on the lot -- with a koi pond, no less.
It is a sly juxtaposition, ripe for tribal claims and narcissistic real-estate lawyers, not to mention wrath and wit about racism, gentrification and the lasting effects of war.
Seven terrific actors morph into 14 very different characters -- especially the quietly phenomenal Frank Wood as men of quiet despondence and obtuse rage.
Norris, who memorably said once in an interview that he doesn't "do redemption," has a clear-eyed -- OK, delightfully mean-spirited -- view about the marrow-deep limitations of selfishness and self-regard. Nobody -- not even the pregnant deaf woman -- is safe from his audacious revulsion with what one can either see as political correctness or hopeful civility.
Even with ethnic-joke padding, the drama dares to disturb the placid chemistry of theatergoing with sparky, hilariously unrepentant observations about life -- even life on Broadway -- as we choose to know it.