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‘Clybourne Park’ at the Arden (2nd review)BY: Alaina Mabaso 02.07.2012
Clybourne Park deals with changing racial attitudes in a Chicago neighborhood. Unfortunately, playwright Bruce Norris opts for easy wit over genuine substance— and his wit isn’t all that witty.
Clybourne Park. By Bruce Norris; Edward Sobel directed. Through March 25, 2012 on the Arcadia stage, Arden Theatre, 40 N. Second St. (215) 922-8900 or www.ardentheatre.org.
Bring on the clichésALAINA MABASO
My high-school English teacher had a bizarre theory about why people get angry at each other. “Everyone is waiting in the wings to be offended,” she’d declare.
That could be an apt description of Bruce Norris’s 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park. Despite the barrages of overlapping dialogue, these characters live in abject terror not just of letting anyone else speak, but of letting anyone hear what they themselves actually want to say.
This new drama, loosely inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 classic, A Raisin in the Sun, imagines the scene at the Clybourne Park household that the black Younger family has just purchased, despite the racist efforts of a white community representative to dissuade them.
In the first act, Karl Lindner (Ian Merrill Peakes) has marched from the Youngers’ living room into the Clybourne Park house in question, to deliver the news about just who is about to move in. Owners Russ and Bev (David Ingram and Julia Gibson), a white married couple who have suffered the suicide of their son, absorb the news with difficulty, conversing with visitors as if their black maid, Francine (Erika Rose), is a piece of furniture.
In Norris’s second act, we fast-forward 50 years, and Lena Younger’s descendant (Erika Rose again) now represents the concerned black Clybourne Park neighbors as a white couple moves into the house, proposing renovations that disregard the neighborhood’s historic character as an important landmark of America’s racial integration.
The dialogue throughout emphasizes the role of property, boundaries and categorization in the American identity, and director Edward Sobel keeps the characters anchored to the physical zones of James Kronzer’s excellent set almost as firmly as they hold to their questionable convictions.
Sobel directs a stellar cast whose members each carry at least two different roles with perfect commitment. Peakes, in his Act II role as the white homebuyer of 2009, provides much of the script’s comedy. Steve Pacek, in his Act I role as Jim, a clergyman visiting the emotionally isolated Russ, perfectly inhabits a man of decent yet smarmy intentions.
Stepping on toes
But too often the cast is done in by Norris’s penchant for racially charged jokes and tiresome clichés that barely scratch the surface of real racism. “A lot of my friends are white” or black, the characters repeatedly announce. “I’m gay!” one announces in exasperation. Another character with relatives in the military expresses predictable outrage at someone else’s anti-war views. “My sister was raped!” yelps another.
Perhaps it’s a testament to the polished, subversive cheek of Norris’s dialogue and Sobel’s direction that this line elicits a laugh from the audience. But by this point, especially in the second act, we get the sense that the characters, rather than carrying the real scars of their various histories, are waiting for someone to step on their toes, for lack of a more interesting conversation— or one that could result in anything other than everyone storming out the door.
Hansberry in 1959 showcased the Younger family’s humor, rage, dignity, solidarity and resilience. (After Lindner’s visit, Beneatha Younger quipped, “He said everybody ought to learn how to sit down and hate each other with good Christian fellowship.”) Norris instead opts for cheap wit.
But if you’re looking for interracial wit, Ashton Kutcher and the late, great Bernie Mac already covered that ground far more deftly in the 2005 comedy remake of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
Norris himself apparently believes that prejudice is just the thing to add a little zest to our humdrum modern lives. “Don’t all white people fantasize about being black?” he asks rhetorically in an interview published in the Arden program– not for the centuries of misfortune, of course, but, “just like with the Jews,” for their jokes. Norris says he envies minority groups their privilege of a “unique critical perspective” that takes “potshots” at the ruling class.
“That outsider perspective is something I crave deeply, even as a privileged, white, hetero male,” he explains. Those are the words of a playwright who seems to have chosen easy wit over genuine engagement.♦
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