Saturday, April 27, 2013

Theatre review: "Clybourne Park" at Pittsburgh Public Theater

Knowing that Bruce Norris’s play Clybourne Park won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award could be an impediment to appreciating the current production at Pittsburgh Public Theater. You might  expect a masterpiece, instead of just admiring a very well-conceived and well-constructed script with more promise than it delivers. Therein lies the problem of advance knowledge along with an anticipatory idea of the intention. Nonetheless, a superior cast of visiting actors makes it all work superbly, with one of them giving an outstanding performance. Credit too director Pamela Berlin for melding everyone into a wonderfully coordinated ensemble, quite an accomplishment. 

Norris has created what some critics have described as a satire. It spins off from Lorraine Hansberry’s true masterpiece A Raisin In The Sun with a second act sequel. Clearly in both acts the core issue is racism and that is explored from a variety of angles but stays more diffused than intensely focused, dealing with people bewildered by such a subject, mentally and emotionally meandering into and out of marginal and sometimes significant thoughts and ideas. Such people certainly are believable. Therein lies Norris’ talent. Most of the time is spent on the characters’ human, often very funny foibles. That makes for many entertaining moments while, at the same time, keeping us outside their self-disguised deepest feelings.  
Hansberry wrote about the black Younger family’s highly emotional struggle and decision to move into a house in an all-white 1950s Chicago neighborhood, Clybourne Park. The neighborhood association sends Karl Lindner to try to buy them out. Norris looks at that from the perspective of white neighborhood people not seen in A Raisin In the Sun with only one character from that, Karl, as the fulcrum. This story begins by hovering over the sometimes buried story of why the house owners, Russ and Bev, want to leave their home. Karl tries to talk them out of it while Russ and Bev’s black housemaid, Francine and her husband Albert, get accidentally trapped in the discussion.

The second act takes place 50 years later when a white couple wants to buy the property and replace the house in an area which became all-black. To do so, that couple must negotiate with the neighborhood association which includes Lena, a relative of the long-since-gone Younger family.

All too human chatter and gab in the first act merge with stereotypical racist generalizations, which skitter on the surface while causing little harm. There is anger there, Russ’s, but it is directed at his neighbors given the pain he feels about the tragedy which took place in his house. In the second act, amid more diffused conversation, Lena tries to make an emotional case for honoring the good things that happened once the Youngers moved in and for not obliterating  the legacy.  

Clearly, from what I’ve said, these people cannot or choose not to dwell intently and thoroughly on racism. In fact, in the second act, they degenerate into telling crude racist jokes rather than getting involved in deep arguments. Hence the satire.

Thus Norris comments, making them not very likeable, as if we are meant to judge them. If we relate to them, it would not be comfortably. Norris has also come up with a lot of inventive parallel details in the 50-years later act which add to a sense of craftsmanship and a sense of intelligent design. As if these were real humans lost in a garden of Eden, not seeing the forest, only the trees. Intellectually such invention has much virtue.

Brad Bellamy gives a remarkably well-developed and especially distinctive sense of Russ’ disabling emotional pain. And, in the second act, he makes equally memorable the role of handyman Dan who accidentally uncovers Russ’ secrets. As the seemingly jovial and well-meaning Karl, Tim McGeever convincingly stays full of that man’s headstrong and blatant ignorance. I was also impressed by Bjorn DuPaty as Francine’s husband Albert with his thorough yet subtle sense of quiet dignity and careful deference to the dominant white folks.     

Scenic designer Michael Schweikardt perfectly conveys the sense of these two homes in transition. The second act’s set, no doubt conceived by Norris, makes its own special comment, as if confirming belief that such a property inevitably would deteriorate when inhabited by black people.     

Norris has given us a lot to ponder. Cumulatively you can come away admiring his perception and skill.That’s what makes this play so good. And the performances maximize its virtues. I wanted more. To be moved. To feel the pain and shame of the racism that still darkens our lives. Those dimensions lurk beneath the ground in Clybourne Park.   

Clybourne Park continues through May 19th at Pittsburgh Public Theater’s O’Reilly Theater. 621 Penn Ave, downtown. 412/ 316-1600  and ppt.org


 

 

 

                       

 

 

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