Sunday, February 28, 2010

No 'Raisin'

Clybourne Park
A play by Bru
ce Norris
Directed by Pam Mackinnon
Starring Frank Wood, Annie Parisse, Jeremy Shamos, Crystal A. Dickinson, Brendan Griffin, Damon Gupton, Christina Kirk
Performances January 29-March 21, 2010
Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street

Although 50 years of racism in America are explored in Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, the playwright cops out again and again by never attacking his subject head on. Instead, he dances, bobs and weaves throughout, preferring to tell lame jokes, parse various words and pile implausibilities ever higher. The result is a frustrating mess.
The first act takes place in 1959 in an affluent white community. Bev and Russ are moving out of their home, hoping to leave behind memories of their son Kenneth—a Korean War veteran—who hanged himself upstairs two years earlier. The problem is—as their upset neighbors point out—they are selling their house to a black couple, and…well, there goes the neighborhood.
Act two, in 2009, is set in the same house, which is now part of a long-rundown black neighborhood. Lindsey and Steve, a white couple, have bought the property and hope to renovate it. Their only problem is that the community association wants to ensure that their upgrades are allowable, so some members of the group sit down with the couple to try and smooth over any disagreements.
Much has been made about Clybourne Park being based on A Raisin in the Sun, the classic racial drama set in Chicago’s Clybourne Park neighborhood. Knowing this doesn’t give Norris’s play any greater resonance: in fact it does the opposite, making the playwright seem like an interloper, alluding to a superior work to gild his inferior one by association.
Even if one gives Norris credit for looking at, as it were, the background of what happened in Raisin, the sad truth is that none of the new play is particularly compelling or insightful; instead it’s quite shallow and tiresome. That’s especially true in his use of language, through the endless parsing of words that ultimately descends into meaninglessness.
The play begins with Bev and Russ discussing the word “Neapolitan” as the husband eats ice cream, getting cheap laughs from Bev saying it couldn’t possibly originate from “Naples.” Similarly, act two begins with Kathy, a supposedly smart lawyer, insisting that the capital of Morocco is not Rabat. And, shortly after that, an entire sequence is given over to crude racial jokes. But, as with everything else in his play, Norris brings up something interesting only to drop it and move on something else.
Most egregiously, Norris literally drags in a large wooden chest filled with Kenneth’s letters and mementos, which Russ nonsensically buries in their back yard--apparently so that it can be dug up 50 years later by workman Dan and give the play a bittersweet ending as Kenneth, Bev and Russ return to enact Kenneth’s final day. Such schematic writing ties up both acts neatly but unsatisfyingly.
The able actors, initially directed by Pam Mackinnon as if stuck in a 1950s sitcom, are too caricatured throughout the first act; after intermission, allowed more breathing room, they are more natural, less affected—except for Christina Kirk, whose Kathy is as mannered as her Bev. Crystal A. Dickinson is the most effective member of the cast as 1959 housekeeper Francine and 2009 community activist Lena.
Norris’s Clybourne Park is no place to visit in 1959 or 2009—or in a theater in 2010.

originally posted on

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