Saturday, May 12, 2012

Play: The Clybourne Identity

Clybourne Park, by Bruce Norris, Directed by Braden Abraham, Seattle Rep, through May 13.

The conceit of Clybourne Park is that it takes place backstage from the Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. In the Hansberry play, the African-American Younger family makes the decision to move from Chicago's slums into an all-white community. Clybourne Park tells the flipside, the story of the house and neighborhood they move into.

The play is broken down in two smaller plays, sharing the same cast. The first act takes place simultaneously with Raisin, set in the house that the Younger family is planning to move into, and works off the question of why such a house would be available at an affordable price in the first place. The second act takes place in the same house, fifty years later, where a white couple is moving into the neighborhood with intentions of making the property a tear-down.

And race hangs over the proceedings, showing how far and how little we have come in 50 years, moving from the hard racism of the 50s to a softer, more casual but equally toxic modern  form. The two halves echo and rhyme against each other, as each builds to the same punchline (the hidden history of the house itself).

However, the characters that carry that plot are shallow and the dialogue tedious. Both halves feel like sitcoms of their respective ages trying to grapple with issues they are not equipped to deal with (racism, yes, but also sexism and suicide). The 50s incarnation is wincible in its repression, while the the post-millennial act is more risible, but too carries that uneasy laughter of discomfort.

I've hit this before plays like God of Carnage or some of the Albee plays - so much would be solved if someone just left the room, but the conventions of the play keep the characters contained in a pressure cooker until the inevitable explosion. Therefore every line either moves you towards that explosion, or denies it temporarily. The plot as a computer program would look as follows:

10         Someone says X
20         If X=stupid, insulting, or racist thing to say, then 40
30         Go to 10
40         Anger +1
50         Go to 10

Foreshadowing in this case consists of someone starting to say something, then getting interrupted, so it sits there like the gun on the mantlepiece to come back at the worst possible time. The bulk of the play itself is the banal talk of daily life, which frustrates but does not illuminate us as to the nature of the characters.

Now, I am bashing on the characters, but the actors are excellent. One of the great gems of a Rep operation is getting to see familiar actors in new roles. Susan Bouchard is excellent as the 50s housewife trying to maintain, then downshifting into the real estate lawyer in the modern age. Peter Crook is the 50s husband pulling in on himself and the worker finding the house's secret in the backyard. Darragh Kennan takes on Karl Linder, the only character from Raisin to show up, and his struggling modern equivalent. All of them are good, but their lines just fail to measure up.

What I am increasingly coming away from in this is the feeling that "Pulitzer Prize Winning Play" is a warning flag for me - I have often come away from such plays confused, frustrated or angry. I Am My Own Wife, Top Dog/Underdog, and Three Tall Women were all winners of the award and all problematic for me. On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed Doubt, Angels in America, and Glengary Glen Ross, which also took the prize, so your mileage may very.

For Clybourne Park, I think the best way is to judge it as an item apart as opposed to a gloss on Raisin. As that, it frustrates and, like most of the discussions in the play, is frequently interrupted and fails to come to a point.

More  later,