Playwright Bruce Norris’ razor-sharp “Clybourne Park” has so much happening that the comedy-drama runs the risk of being misunderstood.
At turns a hysterical satire and a heartbreaking social commentary, the controversial play has won international awards including a 2011 Pulitzer Prize and 2012 Tony Award. Director Michael Stevenson’s whip-smart new production at Capital Stage lucidly captures Norris’ roller coaster rhythm and broad observations of timeless human truths.
The play features two groups of characters in two acts set in two time periods (1959 and 2009), though all the action takes place in the same modest northwest Chicago bungalow living room.
The specific place has primary importance since the play’s action centers on selling the fictional property in the first act and remodeling it in the second. The house is the same one talked about — but never seen — in Lorraine Hansberry’s ground -breaking “A Raisin in the Sun,” the place that the troubled African American Younger family is set to occupy. The Youngers are trying to move out of their cramped, two-room apartment into this more spacious three-bedroom house in an all-white neighborhood.
In “Clybourne Park,” Norris takes audiences to the other side of that transaction through the experience of sellers Bev and Russ, characters played brilliantly here by Shannon Mahoney and Jonathan Rhys Williams.
In the first act, Mahoney and Williams deftly move from a stylized 1950s living-room farce to a tense, heartbreaking confrontation with their nervous neighbors, particularly Karl (the outstanding Aaron Wilton). Karl is a character from Hansberry’s “Raisin” who famously visits the Youngers and tries to buy the house back from them. Karl believes that African Americans buying into the neighborhood will bring property values down. However, “Clybourne’s” narrative unexpectedly shifts from the racial issues to Bev and Russ’ surprising and emotional personal reasons for leaving the neighborhood.
In “Clybourne Park’s” second act, set 50 years after the first, the now-graffiti-riddled living room has a crack-house ambiance, but a decidedly upscale group of 30-somethings has convened amid the trash and broken chairs for a meeting on zoning ordinances. The community, which had gone from all white to all black, is changing again as young whites are seizing on the affordable and thus desirable city property and buying back into the neighborhood. The buyers, Wilton’s Steve and Stephanie Altholz’s Lindsey, want to put an addition on the house, which has created problems on several levels.
Trying to keep the meeting from imploding are Atim Udoffia’s Lena and Beethovan Oden’s Kevin, a middle-class black couple with ties to the house’s past. Both Udoffia and Oden give marvelous performances; her Lena balances intelligence, frustration and seething anger, while his Kevin slyly mocks the increasingly polemic and socially insensitive conversation.
What begins as a discussion of building codesdevolves into intentionally offensive, racist, sexist “jokes” that are more mean and hostile than clever or witty. Trying to keep order are Altholz’s pregnant Lindsey and Dan Fagan’s Tom, a community leader. Wilton and Mahoney are also terrific in their second-half incarnations as the caustic husband and a lawyer whose family also has a neighborhood legacy.
The superior cast gives an entertaining sheen to an often grating and thorny work that brings up necessary questions about who we are and what that means to each of us.
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