By Bruce Norris. Directed by Eric Ting. Through June 2 at the Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. (203) 787-4282, longwharf.org.
Clybourne Park is a play about folks moving in where they're not entirely welcome. In the case of the new production at Long Wharf Theatre, the play itself is an intruder of sorts.
The staging of recent New York hits is de rigeur for theaters that lie farther outside that city. Most regional theaters save a slot or two every year for whatever just won Tonys or Obies and is affordable to produce. But it's uncommon for recent NYC successes to touch down at the Long Wharf or Yale Rep, which are more accustomed to sending plays into the city than taking them right out of there. The Rep, for instance, did the East Coast premiere of Bruce Norris' The Unmentionables back in 2007.
Both The Unmentionables, which is set in a fictional African nation, and Clybourne Park, which is set in a fictional African-American neighborhood in Chicago, involve cocky and self-possessed white people unaware of how their arrival in the area has triggered a deep cultural defensiveness in some of their new neighbors. Clybourne Park is about gentrification and the changing cultural landscape of American cities, which makes it perfect for New Haven.
So much can be written and said about the themes and attitudes of Clybourne Park — the aggressive joking, the uncomfortable truths about urban/upscale communities — that it's easy to forget to note what a great piece of theater this is. Norris has highly advanced playwriting skills, which he shows off by keeping the show moving while avoiding any sort of garish stage spectacle. The most antic moment in the whole show is when a trunk is moved down some stairs. The biggest stage effect is having the cast play different characters in each act, with some of the Act Two figures revealed as a child or grand-niece of people in Act One. There's one delirious moment in the second act where a couple of actors leave the stage yet are very much still present, allowing for a shock punchline to an argumentative scene in which actual punches are nearly thrown.
For most of Clybourne Park, people are just sitting around talking. Yet Norris' script is magically, mystically, swift-moving and engrossing. Social issues are argued. Jokes are told. Cultural heritage is discussed. Norris knows the power of the words he's wrought, and has carefully constructed a scenario that gives those words a platform but doesn't overdress or overblow anything.
Likewise, director Eric Ting, who has a pronounced tendency to use technical-theater heft to underscore dramatic moments in otherwise subdued dramas (the dripping ceiling in Underneath the Lintel, the popped balloons in Italian American Reconciliation, the snowstorms in Macbeth 1969), shows admirable restraint in his staging here. His most radical departure from previous stagings of Clybourne Park that I've seen or read about is to have the characters in the second act arrange their chairs in a semi-circle rather than in a straight line.
In this part of the play, set in 2009, a group of neighbors meet to discuss some new homeowners' desire to demolish an existing home and build a new one at odds with the aesthetics of the immediate neighborhood. It's an animated, moving discussion, all the more so due to Bruce Norris' masterstroke of piggybacking Clybourne Park onto a classic African-American melodrama about moving up, Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. Norris sets his play in the same neighborhood which Hansberry's characters talk about moving to. The same minor character, Karl Lindner, who tries to talk A Raisin in the Sun's Younger family out of moving to the white neighborhood is seen in Clybourne Park trying to convince a middle-aged white couple, Bev and Russ, not to sell their home to the Youngers. Bev and Russ are shown to have been ostracized by the community themselves, and Norris is able to build on (and tear down) the American dream themes of A Raisin in the Sun. It's not necessary to know A Raisin in the Sun to understand Clybourne Park, but revisiting Hansberry's work gives a deeper appreciation of what Norris has brought to these constantly contemporary issues of racism, classism and social mobility.
Clybourne Park's modern-day second act is played in a looser style than its more button-downed and dressed-up 1959-set first act. This makes the play a wonderful challenge for actors. Daniel Jenkins brings both gravity and good humor to his 1950s character of harried homeowner Russ, and an amusingly intrusive giddiness to his walrus-mustached workman Dan in Act Two. Alex Moggridge brings a jumpy good-natured yet subtly seething edge to both Karl Lindner and would-be gentrifier Steve. Both characters played by Leroy McClain are married to characters played by the inspired writer/performer Melle Powers. These couples are given different relationships and rhythms that allow them to assert themselves in the non-stop dialogue with force and verve and surprise. Lucy Owen gets to play pregnant and oblivious characters in both acts, avoiding stereotypes when possible. The most even-tempered, balanced and pace-setting performance in this exhilarating ensemble probably comes from Alice Ripley who takes a tight-lipped, judgmental yet outwardly civil and smiling stance as both '50s housewife Bev and '00s real estate lawyer Kathy.
People talk about their homes and where they came from. What makes it so compelling, so dramatic? Audiences across the country, now including the near-to-New York Long Wharf, have made Clybourne Park the most talked-about play about social relations and real estate since, well, A Raisin in the Sun. New Haveners, Bruce Norris knows where you live.