Picking up where Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” left off, Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park” is a blistering comedy about that dance we do when we talk about race.
Thanks to Aurora Theatre’s startling production of Norris’ play, which won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, I left the theater feeling beaten down and blue, but not thoroughly satisfied that the show couldn’t have been sharper.
First, a primer for those don’t know Hansberry’s 1959 classic: It’s the story of an African-American matriarch who wants to buy a house for her family in Chicago’s white suburbs. The only white character is Karl Lindner, who tries to bribe the Younger family to stay out of his neighborhood.
Fast-forward to Norris’ prequel, and we find Russ and Bev Stoller (Robin Bloodworth and Tess Malis Kincaid) packing up their home at 406 Clybourne St. Slowly and painfully, it is revealed why they want out. As the Stollers’ maid, Francine (Danielle Deadwyler); her husband, Albert (Eric J. Little); and their priest, Jim (Bobby Labartino) look on, the racist Karl (Joe Sykes) arrives with his wife, Betsy (Cara Mantella), and makes a final desperate attempt to stop the sale of the house.
Needless to say, this will not end happily.
In Act Two, we find ourselves in the same living room. Only now it’s 2009. The house is splattered with garbage and graffiti. And a white couple named Steve and Lindsey (Sykes and Mantella) are trying to buy the place.
Deadwyler and Little return as Lena and Kevin, an upwardly mobile couple who think the buyers’ grandiose plans for a makeover will destroy the integrity of the neighborhood. Eventually, we learn that Lena is a relative of Hansberry’s Lena Younger, and that Steve and Lindsey’s attorney, Kathy (Kincaid), is the daughter of Karl and Betsy. Needless to say, this will not end happily — and not before the mask of civility is dropped and racism rears its ugly head.
As directed by Melissa Foulger, “Clybourne Park” is an uneven effort that packs a tragic wallop while revealing the flaws of Norris’ concept. While the production is provocative and deeply moving, it sometimes feels unnecessarily over the top — from the performances to the design.
Sitting in a chair wearing pajamas and eating ice cream, Bloodworth is terrific as Russ. Looking like a character out of “Mad Men” — the ’50s bouffant, the cocktail dress — Kincaid captures the aching heart of a woman trying to conceal her sorrow under a veneer of pleasantry.
If the characters Albert and Francine almost seem to have wandered in from “The Help,” Karl is from “The Twilight Zone.” For better or worse, Sykes latches on to the verbal idiosyncrasies of Karl and turns them into caricature. You’ll either be mesmerized or repulsed by his take. As Karl’s deaf wife, who happens to be pregnant, Mantella is an image of authentic joy, kindness, confusion and panic. She’ll shatter your heart.
The second half begins at such an exaggerated speed the actors have nowhere to go. I find this maddening and confusing. As to the design: While Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay deliver a perfect 1959 living room with costumes to match, the 2009 set looks a bit too much like a war zone. The total effect of the second half is sensory overload.
I found “Clybourne Park” more meaningful as a study of grief than of race. The idea that racism comes in all flavors and shades, in clothes shabby and fashionable and in language ignorant and intellectual, is hardly new information. “Clybourne Park” is a fine, thoughtful play. It just doesn’t do much to move the conversation forward.