Caldwell Theatre's adaptation of Clybourne Park is refreshing in its biting and direct exposition of the dumbed-down dialogue, latent racism, and recycled talking points that dominate discussions about race in America today. It rightfully points out the culpability in everyone, especially moneyed PC liberals, who, in all their obsession with sensitivity, are really just as clueless as the bigots they disdain.
Playwright Bruce Norris' much-lauded 2010 work takes off where Lorraine Hansberry's landmark play A Raisin in the Sun left off in 1959. Clybourne Park imagines what happens after the Youngers, a black family, plan to move into a white neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s. A tussle ensues in the first act among hostile white residents who don't want to be neighborly to the incoming family. The Youngers' potential neighbor Karl presses Bev and Russ, who have sold their home to the Youngers, to rethink the sale. Karl, bespectacled and outfitted like a 1950s IBM employee, is irredeemable and wholly unsympathetic in his attempt to reason why a black family shouldn't move into the neighborhood. His argument? Bev's black housekeeper, Francine (Karen Stephens), has never been skiing, which apparently precludes the Youngers' "fitting into the community."
In fact, almost all the characters, with the exception of Francine and her husband, Albert, are like that, just to a lesser degree. Kenneth Kay offers up a great performance as Russ, who, though he refuses to rethink the sale, does so out of spite, not a sense of idealism or fairness. Bev (Patti Gardner) is a Suzy Homemaker type who blithely condescends to Francine. Gregg Weiner puts in an appropriately grating performance as Karl, but his wife, Betsy, is given a comic and cartoony performance by Margery Lowe. The priest, Jim (Cliff Burgess), is exasperatingly superficial in his attempts to help Russ deal with a personal tragedy.
The second act fast-forwards to 2010, when the same home is expertly transformed from a Leave It to Beaver suburban domicile to a worn-and-torn construct. The house is again the subject of dispute, but now the predominantly black neighborhood is worried about a white couple coming in to renovate the home.
Clybourne Park produces anything but the glossed-over conversation about race on cable news. Take, for example, the challenges of a line like, "Why is a white woman like a tampon? Because they're both stuck up cunts." The humor comes from a place that acknowledges a system of racial differentiation, that whites can be made fun of because black culture is still looked at as inferior to white culture. Norris told New York Magazine that "my primary exposure to anyone African-American up until I was 14 was our maid. There's no way to escape the fact that I'm a racist."
That shocking line is delivered pitch-perfect by Karen Stephens, who portrays Lena Dickinson in the second act with a frustrated calm. She then explodes into wry mocking after tensions run high when a white family sparks fears of gentrification. Lena's "joke," however, comes in response to a series of (more?) offensive ones. Lena's follow-up: an ironic "I hope you're not offended."
The second act is where the casting really shines. Each actor plays a new and unrelated character. Kay seamlessly shifts from a grieving wiseass to Dan, a gum-chewing construction worker. Lowe is no longer a deaf Lucille Ball, instead becoming the nervous PC liberal Lindsey. Weiner is still a racist jerk, albeit a totally different type. And Stephens' comedic delivery in her role as Francine carries right over to Lena. Clive Cholerton's direction shines here as well, as the time difference and its new plot lines fail to be jarring. Under Cholerton, the staging often communicates as much as the script: Knowing looks and side conversations come forward and melt seamlessly into the background, comedic side plots offer surprising appearances, smooth disappearances, and fresh reappearances.
Other rewards include sound effects (ringtones convey so much!) and song choices (from Dodie Stevens to the Rolling Stones), as well as the costumes and period-appropriate props (really old National Geographics). But most important, Caldwell's production adequately captures the discomfort and nuance of a highly charged script. And it does so by being uncomfortable but amazingly funny.
Or do we mean offensive?