A Raisin in the Sun is not one of my favorite plays. I think, even by today's standards, it tries just a bit too hard. No, it isn't one of my favorite plays, but I respect it, its playwright, Lorraine Hansberry, and the difficulty and courage it took to get it produced on Broadway. Often billed as a sequel of sorts to A Raisin in the Sun, Bruce Norris' play, Clybourne Park, is also not one of my favorite plays (not even just this season), but I also don't have a whole ton of respect for it, either. The entire endeavor smacks of obvious manipulation dressed up in a clever suit. It wears its symbolism and profundity with the subtlety of a prom corsage, and it comes across as desperate in its need for the theatre world to recognize that it is AN IMPORTANT PLAY. I'm guessing that everyone that has been (and will be) involved with this work was so busy congratulating themselves on finding AN IMPORTANT PLAY, that no one - producer or playwright - paused to consider that truly important plays don't announce themselves so blatantly; the truly great ones just are.
A few well-chosen references to the work that inspired it is the one thing Norris hasn't overdone in the Raisin/Clybourne connection. In fact, two of those references actually enhance the play: the lone white character in the former - Mr. Linder - is a main character in the first act here. Were act one of Clybourne Park the final act of A Raisin in the Sun, it might fit nicely. It shows the flip side of the American experience in the late 1950's in a pertinent, interesting way. The other reference, much subtler, has Norris naming a modern day character after the main character of Raisin - she is a descendant. Were that the rest of the play as subtle and interesting. The very structure of the play on paper sounds very clever and alive with possibility. In two acts, one fifty years after the other, the play shows us how life in suburban America has evolved and devolved over the course of time. The execution of that promise ranges from decent to absurd, thought-provoking to mind numbing, and hilarious to eye-rolling groans of humor unfulfilled.
|Clybourne Park circa 1959|
Even knowing that each act takes place half a century apart going in, didn't make the first 10 minutes or so any less perplexing or maddening. Norris and director Pam McKinnon have taken broad strokes to make each act feel and look like sit-coms from their perspective eras. Inane conversation by either stupid or repressed housewives, with husbands that don't listen and still belittle, and a wise-cracking, clearly smarter, housekeeper are the hallmarks of the first act. But it takes at least 15 minutes for the play to get going. Only then do we find out why these people are moving, why the wife feels the need to fill the void every time the room grows quiet, and why the housekeeper can't wait for her time of servitude to be over days later. And it doesn't help that the woman playing the aforementioned housewife is abundantly annoying in her tone - whiny - and silly in her mannerisms - she loves to twirl in her dress. Where, oh where, was the laugh track? Only when the veneer drops and we get to the meat of the story - Mr. Linder, representing the "community" comes to beg the white family not to sell to a "negro" family - do things get interesting. When the homeowner says no, he's selling, the gloves come off and the bigotry explodes like fireworks. Here is an all too brief moment where the playwright is close to something original: maybe the guy selling the house would be interested in helping out his community if his community had been interested in helping him out in his time of need. They didn't, he won't, and here come the property-value-dropping bad guys.
|Clybourne Park circa 2009|
Act two, which takes place in 2009, is also in the style of sit-coms of the period. Cast with a self-conscious diversity (all the gals are feminists, all the guys are emasculated men; pro-war folks, anti-war folks; the lady lawyer, and the token gay guy, and the sub-character that ends up making the play's "big statement"), the seven characters are smart, upwardly mobile, and seem to have an unending supply of witty, bitchy, pithy remarks. They also spend the majority of the act sitting perfectly still just chatting with each other; the main topic is introduced, danced around, tangentially part of any number of subtopics brought up. And just like any number of episodes of Friends, Seinfeld or even Modern Family, they talk, argue, and make up. Nothing is really resolved, but everyone - audience included - leaves happy, having laughed and marveled at the nasty finesse of talkative yuppies who have no right to bitch about life.
Then, too, there are the heavy handed symbols - an army footlocker buried and unearthed fifty years later, the loud-mouth white bigot has a deaf, pregnant wife who can't hear his filth, but can carry his progeny, a black housekeeper and her husband smart enough to keep their mouths shut, and angry at themselves for keeping quiet, anyway. Norris also fills both acts of his play with pointed conversations about world capitals - in act one that knowledge comes from National Geographic; in act two it comes from having actually traveled. In both acts it reveals the utter lack of Americans to recognize a global community, let alone the one they live in. Really? No shit. Or how about the racist implications of who knows how to downhill ski? There are several more examples, but suffice it to say that whatever tidbit of chat that comes up with any semblance of import in act one, it will even more pointedly come up in act two. It is clever and even occasionally interesting the first couple of times (a ha!!), but grows rather old quickly. Things get rather "Jersey Shore" in act two, when the characters try to out offend each other with jokes about jailhouse sex and a particularly nasty joke involving white women and tampons. Gross yes, offensive, yes. But not offensive because of racism or sexism. Offensive because they are just bad.
|Husband and wife coping in 1959:|
Christina Kirk and Frank Wood
|Two faces of bigotry: religious leader and community leader:|
Brendan Griffin and Jeremy Shamos
|Racism confronted: Jeremy Shamos, |
Damon Gupton and Crystal A. Dickinson
Some credit for this inexplicably acclaimed slice of life being even remotely palatable goes to director McKinnon, who has managed to create two distinct plays here, with a keen eye to the style of each period (TV-wise, anyway). Anyone who can make an hour-plus with seven people sitting in a straight line on a set with nothing look at interesting must be doing something right. And she also has made it less obvious that the playwright has written one monologue per character per act, and for that I have to say, "directorial job well-done!"
The rest of the credit (and really the only reason to even see this play) is the mostly terrific cast, each one able to rise above the sophomoric script. Despite being saddled with outwardly annoying characters in both acts, Christina Kirk works hard, and succeeds in getting us past the cringe-worthy annoyance of these women and helps us see a heart-broken mother, and a headstrong, self-made lawyer. Brendan Griffin, deserves much credit for not being booed off the stage as he is assigned the unenviable task of playing a 50's style do-gooder minister, a sharp-tongued gay guy (we all are, aren't we?), and at the very end, the ghost of the past crossing paths with a modern day discoverer. If you ever need to point to an example of "stereotype" simply point to any of these three characters. Good for you, Mr. Griffin, for making all three of them more interesting than have any right to be. Somewhat less successful is Annie Parisse, who can't quite overcome the blatancy of both of her parts. In act one, she can't quite hide the bald symbolism of being the deaf, pregnant woman married to white supremacy personified, even when she is shamelessly being used as yet another tasteless running joke. In act two, preggers again (duh), she is a loud-mouthed placating, self-righteously unracist racist. (She gets the inevitable "Half my friends are black" line and the even more inevitable "I'm not going to apologize for being white" bit, too.) Every "important" thing she says seems to have parentheses around them. Thank God she didn't do the two-fingered quote gesture.
Both Crystal A. Dickinson and Damon Gupton bring a quiet dignity to their roles in act one, despite the cringe-worthy, though time period appropriate, dialogue they speak for most of the act. Their "Yes, Ma'am"s and "Yes, Sir"s come across more as social convention than oppression. And as the act heats up, and they are literally forced to confront bigotry in front of a room full of white people, you can't help but cheer them on when all defenses are dropped and they tell it like it is, dignity in tact. In act two, they come out of it less dignified, but still, out numbered, get their point across. They, like everyone else, are a little bit racist, too, to borrow from Avenue Q, a show which handles these issues in the 21st century with much more clarity and cleverness. I guess it is just easier to take from a bunch of singing puppets.
|21st Century America: The politically correct confront each other:|
Annie Parisse, Crystal A. Dickinson and Jeremy Shamos
Finally, the two cast members who deliver powerhouse performances do so at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Tony winner Frank Wood plays the inwardly suffering husband/father in act one. Whereas his wife can't stand the silence, that's all he wants. If he could while away his days reading National Geographic and eating Neapolitan ice cream, he would. His performance is a very quiet measured one, almost too quiet to start with, until finally the cracks in his facade begin to show. His obsessions then turn to his late son's footlocker and the need to bury it in the backyard, so that he, the father, might find peace in leaving the past entirely in Clybourne Park. He has suffered alone, finding little support at home or from his community, which makes his now outward pain difficult to watch. Finally, when confronted by that very community, in the personage of Mr. Linder, played by Jeremy Shamos, the gloves come off and the truth is told. That release is a relief for all concerned - audience included - because finally the play is going somewhere. Mr. Shamos, a Tony nominee for this role, has the most difficult of all tasks: he plays a blatantly racist person, who believes he is really thinking of the best interests of the black family moving in, the white family moving out, and the community which he serves. A lot of what he says is so audacious that hearing it in a 1950's context in the 21st century helps his hate speech to retain its shock value. Shamos attacks the role with gusto, and is deserving of his nomination. Both he and Mr. Wood have less to do in act two. Wood, in particular, has what amounts to a walk on role, but manages to handle one of the more heavy-handed symbolic events of the script in such a way that while it seems somehow inevitable, it is not trite (no spoiler alert here). The playwright has given Mr. Shamos another decent rant to yell in act two, but his overall presence is diminished by the fact that instead of being the lone voice of hatred, all of the characters get their moment to share in it in act two.
|All smiles in Clybourne Park, 2009|
Perhaps that is Norris' point. In mid-20th century America, bigotry and hatred all seemed to come from one direction: the middle and upper-class white male. Now, in the new millennium, everybody hates and hurts. The only difference is that now it is all wrapped up under terms like "political correctness" and "racial sensitivity." Doesn't matter what suburb or city, we Americans are as territorial as ever. It's just that now we feel so damned smug about it.
It says a lot, I think, that on the day I attended, a large group of high school students apparently enjoyed the show very much, roaring with laughter at every gross-out joke, groaning their displeasure at the loudly racist barbs, and cheering every clever comeback. It says a lot, too, that they sat silently through the very few moments of sincere profundity. I can't say whether or not they were quiet because they didn't get it or they got it or because they didn't know how to react. But I'll be willing to bet that when they got home, they had plenty to say about the white bigot, the clever comebacks of the blacks, and the "cunt" joke. Do you think they gave any more thought to those characters beyond the reality show-level language and sit-com timing they see every day on TV? I want to believe so, but Bruce Norris doesn't ask that much of anyone watching his allegedly important play, either.
(Photos by Nathan Johnson)