Note: See the end of this review for a discount code for tickets to Clybourne Park.
At nearly 40, Playwrights Horizons is such an established part of New York's not-for-profit Off-Broadway pantheon that it's easy to take it for granted and forget that it has a special mission, as indicated in its very name: to foster and develop excellent new plays and playwrights. The current production of Bruce Norris's poetically written and smartly plotted Clybourne Park bodes well for the new decade – for Playwrights Horizons, at least, if not for the chances of fundamental change in race relations in America.
Two clever ideas root the play. First, Mr. Norris looks back half a century to Lorraine Hansberry's iconic A Raisin in the Sun, about an upwardly mobile black family – and depicts the other side. A white family in a lily-white, primly racist middle class neighborhood have sold their house to a black family, eliciting resistance, first euphemistic and then raw, from the community embodied by the deliciously sleazy Karl (the effective Jeremy Shamos, seen recently as the cautious priest in Creature).
Badly damaged by the death of their war-veteran son, angry and repressed Russ (Frank Wood, who won a Tony for Side Man) and Bev (the superb Christina Kirk, who did fine work in the excellent Telethon last year) are packing up and leaving the neighborhood behind, along with, they hope, their sorrows. Bev is a quintessential 1959 period piece, a liberal-minded woman who believes intellectually in the equality of the races and takes pride in her "friendship" with her black housekeeper Francine (the quietly explosive Crystal A. Dickinson), but still talks down to Francine and her husband Albert (the smoldering Damon Gupton) without being aware of it.
The play's second original conceit is setting the second act 50 years later, in the present time, with the same actors playing different roles. Now they are a batch of youngish people haggling over what initially seem like trivial details of the design of a new house. The couple who want to tear down and rebuild are white, the couple who object are black, and the ties to the story of 50 years earlier slowly materialize as this much faster paced, funnier, but ultimately equally powerful second half progresses. By the time a contractor (played by an utterly transmogrified Mr. Wood) digs up the old trunk Russ had buried in the yard and plops the baggage of the ages literally on center stage, we've seen just how the ugliness of America's never-ending racial "conversation" has transformed over the decades – transformed, but hardly died down. Aided by Pam MacKinnon's commendably transparent direction and fine performances all around, Mr. Norris has dramatized his perceptive view of these changes (and lack thereof) with wit, skill, and heart.