Sign up for our free newsletter
It sounds, well, gimmicky: setting your play in a single house, its two acts separated by half a century; the first at the beginning of white flight from the eponymous, fictional Chicago neighborhood of Clybourne Park; the second, at the Whole Foods phase of its gentrification. It even looks gimmicky: James Kronzer’s cutaway set of the two-story bungalow whose fortunes foretell those of the surrounding blocks is straight out of a Wes Anderson joint. Some of the audience is situated (nearly) onstage, watching through the house’s living room window, a novelty that neither enhances nor detracts but makes available 18 more tickets for each performance. Be not afraid, though: Nothing about Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris’ humane and uproarious new dissection of how hard it is to talk about race in this country, smacks of affectation. Those who remember The Unmentionables, Norris’ satire of Western do-goodery in Africa staged at Woolly Mammoth in 2007, already know the (white) playwright and actor is adept at peeling the hypocrisy of well-educated, well-meaning white liberals. But he resists any impulse to make his black characters beyond reproach—they’re capable of selfishness and prejudice, too. It’s the playwright’s equal-opportunity disbursement of frailties, made deliciously manifest by an ensemble of ringers, that keeps Clybourne Park’s creeping didacticism from overpowering its funny. There’s shouting aplenty, but as directed for Woolly by poobah Howard Shalwitz, the thing never feels like it’s shouting at you. The play’s 20th- and 21st-century halves share a cast, some of whom play descendants in Act Two of their Act One characters. Each half is self-contained, though there’s a tragic secret connecting them, Norris’ most conventional touch and perhaps his least necessary. It’s present mainly to give Russ and Bev (Mitchell Hebert Jennifer Mendenhall, both superb), the couple we meet in 1959, a compelling reason to sell to the first buyers they find. They plead ignorance when informed by a cunning neighbor (Cody Nickell, exceptional in both his roles) that the house’s new owners-to-be are a black family, though they can’t hide their surprise. “Isn’t it possible they’re Mediterranean?” Bev asks. In the latter-day half, an expectant white couple moving in from the ’burbs with plans to expand the house meet with a black couple representing the neighborhood association. Lena and Kevin (Jefferson A. Russell and Dawn Ursula) have lived in Clybourne Park for years—Lena grew up there—and unlike the carpetbaggers, they know all about the tragedy that depressed the house’s price so a relative of Lena’s was able to afford it half a century earlier. You don’t really need to know that those relatives were the Youngers, the family at the center of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun. But it’s an interesting connection to a watershed work with which Clybourne Park shares a subject, and to which its two acts form, respectively, a fascinating companion piece and a worthy sequel.