Friday, April 20, 2012

Clybourne Park: The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Unpopular opinion. Dead ahead. 

Clybourne Park written by Bruce Norris and directed by Pam MacKinnon is two unique plays merged into one: first, a screwball-esque family dramedy, second, a comedy of modern errors. The two halves are married together to get audiences to focus on the language of race over time and the history of urban change.  Building off of the story in Raisin the Sun, and using the same house, we meet different people at different times in history who are all connected to these issues.

In Act I, it is 1959 and we meet Bev (Christina Kirk) and Russ (Frank Wood) who are coping with the death of their son and choosing to move out of their neighborhood.  Neighbor, Karl Lindner (Jeremy Shamos) (a character taken from Raisin in the Sun) comes along with his deaf wife (Annie Parisse) to try to talk Bev and Russ out of moving because an African-American family has bought the house and this will be, according to Karl, the end of the neighborhood. Awkwardly caught in the middle of this debate is Bev's African-American housekeeper Francine (Crystal A. Dickinson) and her husband Albert (Damon Gupton).

In Act II, set in the 2009, a dispute is being mediated between a couple moving into the same house from Act I, Lindsey (Parisse) and Steve (Shamos) and neighborhood association represented by Lena (Dickinson) and Kevin (Gupton). 

Many people I know and respect really liked this play but I failed to connect to it.  I did not find it funny and I did not find the drama satisfying. 

With the frenetic, muddled direction and a certain level of comic wackiness, it came across to me as the "You Can't Take With You" of racism.  Somehow the staging and production seem to play up screwball comedy in an unexpected, and for me, wholly unwelcome way (a priest, a deaf woman and an overtly racist asshole walk into a house full of tragically broken people and comedy ensues). 

Although some have described this is a comic satire, I found it less than satisfying in it's comedy or it's satire.   The play was not subtle in it's attempts to forge connections between time periods and tie together the "issues."  But what was more problematic for me was putting the issues above character development.  What caught my interest was the family drama at the core of the play.  But the playwright and director seemed to keep pushing that emotionally engaging story to the side (it crops up again in Act II in an awkward, tacked-on kind of way).

Christina Kirk's shrill Bev was challenging to connect with.  Her "high-strung" nature is played for comedy here but I found it constantly undermining the dramatic reasons for her emotional state.  She is not meant to be a lovable character but as performed I hated her for all the wrong reasons (notably I liked Christina Kirk in Act II).  Further more, I've about had it with Frank Wood. I have seen him in two shows recently and I felt like he gave the same performance in both.  His lip-licking shenanigans must stop.  Have you ever seen him perform a role where he did not spend 85% of his time on stage punctuating his lines with lip-licking? It was beyond irritating in Angels in America and here I just lost it.  I am sure he's a lovely person in real life but he has fallen into some sort of strange acting tic that throws me out of his performances every time. 

Without being able to feel for these grieving parents, Act I was a struggle for me.

In Act II, there is absolutely no interest in building fully-formed characters.  The only resonance is "supposed" to come from familial connections hearkening back to Act I.  But Act II falls into a "God of Carnage" like parlor-game of modern manners when efforts to be over-sensitive to race lead to a variety of insensitivities. 

The play sets up interesting parallels for the audiences to think about but I felt like it was easily reduced to that dichotomy.  You hear the echos from Act I in Act II as you are meant to.  You see the open racism of 1959 and then you see the closeted racism and assumptions people make today in the 2009 era.  The play demonstrates the shift in language: how we talk about race and how that has changed over time.  The openly racist language of 1959 may be uncomfortable for audiences to hear.  Moreover, watching the African-American actors portray characters who have no say or role in the conversation and are not permitted to speak as equal parties may also be painful.

But I found all of this a lesson in the obvious getting its message across with the subtlety of a Looney Tunes cartoon anvil dropped from the sky.  I longed to know more about the story beneath the story but that wasn't apparently the focus of the play.

That said, it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.  But as I like to remind people, so did How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.

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