Not in their back yard

New problems evolve from old conflicts in Clybourne Park.

click to enlarge DIVIDED, THEY STAND: David Breitbarth, Tyla Abercrumbie and Christopher Wynn illustrate modern-day conflicts in Clybourne Park. - Barbara Banks
Barbara Banks
DIVIDED, THEY STAND: David Breitbarth, Tyla Abercrumbie and Christopher Wynn illustrate modern-day conflicts in Clybourne Park.

Why do I have these qualms about Clybourne Park? Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play has the right politics, is unpredictable and funny, and features often-memorable risk-taking dialogue. Further, it’s one of the few plays that dares to reference another drama, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, and to assume that its audience knows that earlier text well. Clybourne’s subject — race relations in America — is still dreadfully pertinent, and the acting by the eight-member troupe at Sarasota’s Asolo Rep is in every case solid. So why my dissatisfaction?

I think I know.

But first let’s agree about what happens on the stage. In Act One, it’s 1959, and married couple Russ and Bev (Douglas Jones and Annabel Armour) are preparing to move out of their house in a white Chicago neighborhood. All’s not well with this family: their son Kenneth, a Korean War veteran, came to a tragic end back in the States, and Russ has lost the taste for life as a result. So the property, with all its sad memories, is to be vacated. One problem, though: the neighborhood association has discovered that the new buyers are an African-American family (the Youngers of Raisin), and these bigots don’t want any blacks on their tree-lined streets. Enter white racist Karl Lindner (the superb David Breitbarth), fresh from the Hansberry play, to plead with Russ and Bev to rescind the sale. Will he succeed in preventing the arrival of the first black inhabitants of Clybourne Park?

Then it’s Act Two and 50 years later. Now the home we saw in the previous act has been sold by its black owners to Steve and Lindsey (Breitbarth and Sarah Brown), a gentrifying white couple with plans to build the most stunning domicile in Clybourne Park. But it may be too stunning: the black-run neighborhood association is concerned that the historical quality of the area will be marred by the planned McMansion. As Lena and Kevin (Tyla Abercrumbie and Christopher Wynn), representing the African-American neighbors, mount an opposition to the white buyers, racial tensions flare into the open. Maybe not so much has changed in half a century; maybe the only real difference is that both sides now feel free to disparage the other. And the ideal of racial harmony may be as far away as it was in 1959.

All right, what’s wrong with this seemingly thoughtful presentation? Let’s begin with the irrelevancies: Karl Lindner’s wife Betsy (Brown) is deaf and pregnant when we meet her, and it’s never explained how these facts pertain to the action or the theme of race. Russ and Bev in Act One have an annoyingly long argument about the derivation of the word “Neapolitan,” and the subject could hardly be more unrelated to the plot. The death of Russ and Bev’s son Kenneth (Jacob Cooper) is given special prominence in Act Two, but his experience in Korea seems disconnected to just about everything else in the play. Echoes of the irrelevant bits in Act One occur in Act Two: This time it’s Lindsey who’s pregnant, and the name of the capital of Morocco that’s fought over (Marrakech? Timbuktu?). Repeating a false note doesn’t make it true; there are lots of minutes in Clybourne that don’t matter.

Then there’s the staging. The usually excellent Michael Donald Edwards deploys the actors in this drama with so much pictorial order, virtually every scene looks like it was created for the cast photograph. Where are the imbalances and asymmetries of real life in all these arrangements? Clybourne Park is supposed to be about disorder and conflict, but these actors seem arrayed with a geometrical perfection that not only looks artificial, but constantly undermines the play’s message. If form is content, the form here is all wrong.

Still, the play is, finally, moving, and its perspective does show through. Certain segments — the racist joke tourney in Act Two is perhaps the most notable — are shockingly powerful. The design is impeccable, from Dane Laffrey’s living-rooms-in-transition to the 1959 and 2009 costumes. The projections which open both acts are fun and meaningful, and Jennifer Schriever’s lighting is eloquent. Like most Asolo Rep productions, Clybourne Park has been treated with lavish attention.

Which doesn’t mean that it’s quite successful. Pulitzer Prize or not, this is a show with notable weaknesses. Fortunately, it’s also got a few notable virtues.

See it rather than not. But expect mixed feelings.

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