Arts & Culture » Theater

Halfway Home: Clybourne Park's first act provides some of the best theater you'll ever see



Some stories just don't go away; they burrow under the skin and linger. Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 family drama A Raisin in the Sun is such a story. Her account of a black family that buys a home in a segregated Chicago neighborhood was torn from the loins of the 1950s civil-rights movement. Half a century later, Hansberry's story of dreams deferred continues to resonate with viewers who did not personally experience that galvanizing time. Now it provides the impetus for Bruce Norris' play Clybourne Park, the current offering in the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' Studio series.

Clybourne Park begins by chronicling the principal events in A Raisin in the Sun from the point of view of the white homeowner. In Act One we meet Russ, the Judas Iscariot who has betrayed his neighbors by selling his house to negroes. We learn the hurtful reason behind Russ' decision — and how the controversial sale was effected. In a beautifully calibrated performance, Mark Anderson Phillips underplays Russ' pain so acutely that even his most modest eruptions seem seismic. Phillips' haunted portrayal is matched by Nancy Bell as his haplessly confused wife Bev. Perhaps it's more than coincidence that Bev's name is similar to that of Beth, the withdrawn Chicago housewife in Judith Guest's Ordinary People; in the face of personal tragedy, the two share an inability to right their lives.

Act One begins to crackle with the arrival of Karl Lindner (the only character Norris directly borrowed from A Raisin in the Sun). He speaks on behalf of the community association, which wants to derail the impending sale. When the ever-uptight Karl (an effective Michael James Reed) and the no-nonsense Russ have at each other, the theatrical sparks fly. The bristling dialogue reminds us that playwright Norris is also an actor. His lean words carry the cast like surfers on the crest of a crashing wave. As directed with taut precision by Timothy Near, theater doesn't get much more satisfying than this.

Act Two moves the story 50 years into the future, to 2009. No longer is Norris bound by the events in A Raisin in the Sun; in Act Two the playwright can take the story anywhere he chooses. The now-dilapidated two-story bungalow on Clybourne Street is to be sold again. A young white couple wants to move into the predominately black neighborhood, but they only want the lot; they intend the house as a teardown. They are meeting with city planners, attorneys and (again) neighborhood reps. But in Act Two, the convoluted dialogue is too clever by half and is often confusing. Confrontations are merely loud and abrasive. The act's most pointed moment occurs when one character asks, "Can someone please explain to me what it is we're doing here?" That's a great question, but it goes unanswered. The promise of Act One unravels in diffusion.

In stark contrast to the intriguing first act, in Act Two Norris displays a sneering disdain for all his characters. Nor are they much helped by the actors. As played by Reed, the new property owner, who is already a boor on the written page, becomes insufferable. By the time the evening finally ends, Clybourne Park has devolved into an opportunity missed.

But the play won last year's Pulitzer Prize, didn't it? And this year's Tony, to boot? Indeed it did. But awards are often impermanent indicators of quality. A Raisin in the Sun is an American classic, yet it was passed over by the Pulitzer judges; the 1959 prize went instead to Archibald MacLeish's opaque verse drama J.B.; that season's Tony Award went to The Miracle Worker. Time alone will determine if the much-lauded Clybourne Park finds continued resonance with audiences. Perhaps instead it will be recognized as a dexterous sleight of hand, one in which the cleverness outshines the content.

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