Next-Door Haters

Clybourne Park , Bruce Norris's new drama, loosely based on the Lorraine Hansberry classic A Raisin in the Sun , is a searing and blisteringly funny look at race relations and the power of property. Enjoying its premiere at Playwrights Horizons, the play is presented by a talented cast of actors -- a few of whom (Christina Kirk, Frank Wood and Chrystal A. Dickenson) raise the bar exponentially on already-excellent writing. It is finely directed by Pam McKinnon.

Clybourne Park , (also the name of the all-white Chicago neighborhood depicted in Raisin , begins Act One in 1959, with neighbors up-in-arms over the sale (in the wake of a tragedy) of a home at 406 Clybourne Street to the community's first African-American family.

Russ and Bev (Kirk/Wood) play a traditional 1950's couple, who - while packing up the house with the help of their maid, Francine (Dickenson) - are confronted by angry neighbors (Jeremy Shamos/Annie Parisse) concerned about the effect of the sale upon local property values.

Kirk and Wood are outstanding in this simmer-to-boil act. Kirk infuses Bev with such energy that she wrings out every drop of the hostility-behind-the-gentility of a 50's-era woman, both in her condescending interactions with Francine, and in the way she summons the community priest (Brendan Griffin) to aid her preoccupied husband and comfort herself. As a deeply depressed father, Wood is achingly funny - and uses some of Norris's shorter lines like lethal tennis volleys.

Racial misconceptions and fears are dredged up as arguments by the intruding neighbors -- ranging from vapid concerns over ethnic food to obscene sociological observations ("So what I have to conclude is that the pasttime of skiing just doesn't appeal to the Negro community.")

The act is washed down with Bev's ostensibly well-meaning but nauseating platitudes thrown in for good measure ("Maybe we should learn what the other person eats...maybe that would be the solution, if someday we could sit down at one big table.")

A Raisin in the Sun was to become the first play written by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. It draws its inspiration from the Langston Hughes poem, Harlem, taking its title from the line, "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?" For The Youngers, the play's central family, home ownership - in spite of objections from Clybourne Park's Improvement Committee - is held up as a Holy Grail of sorts.

In Act Two of Clybourne Park , set in 2009, we find a young white couple (Parissse/Shamos) thumbing through a contract that would allow them to bulldoze their freshly-purchased house at 406 Clybourne Street to reconstruct it, plus an addition (of the upwardly-mobile variety). As their home would then dwarf other nearby homes, they face objections from the Historical Society of the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, in the form of another couple (Dickinson and Damon Gupton).

The second act starts out civilly, but soon emerges into raw conflict and the artful but brutal use of (racially-inspired) jokes. The second act really belongs to Dickenson (as Lena), as she evolves from benign impatience to increasing frustration with not being heard, to finally showing her teeth. The space in the room that Lena claims once she explodes personifies all the underlying metaphors in question. Kirk also shines as the narcisstic lawyer for the young white couple, langorously sipping iced-coffee Weeds style, and delivering well-placed comic lines.

The racism in this act hurts, it's meant to, but it's also raw and funny. It touches close enough to the nerve to be both unsettling and hilarious. The intra-couple tension that is also present only adds to the building rancor.

The only disappointing thing about Act Two (once it gets revved up) is the tail end of it, which harkens back to events in the house, as it existed in 1959. This attempt to tie the two stories (1959 & 2009) together - joined already by virtue of place - feels manufactured and gratuitous.

The set, engineered by Damiel Ostling and rich in detail, undergoes a stunnning transformation in-between acts. The pale greens and rose purples that contrasted with well-chosen costumes like Bev's dress in Act One, become grafitti-stained walls with off-stage glimpses of overturned paint buckets in Act Two.

There is an acute sense that no easy resolution is possible for still-festering racial tensions over territory and community. ("You can't live in a principle. You live in a home." )

Still, an evening of smart writing and terrific acting where risks like these are taken makes every startling moment completely worth the price of admission. Hurry to Playwright's Horizons to catch Clybourne Park while you can.

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