By James V. Ruocco
Interracial tension, property ownership, white privilege, historical change and death by suicide are among the topics addressed in Bruce Norris's timely, provocative 2010 play "Clybourne Park," which when first produced on Broadway and in London, won the Tony Award for Best Play, the Olivier Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama.
Prior to its staging, no other play was the recipient of all three honors.
Inspired by Lorriane Hansberry's acclaimed 1959 work "A Raisin in the Sun," the two-act play is set in the fictional, white middle-class neighborhood of Chicago's Clybourne Park during 1959 (Act One) and 2009 (Act Two).
Here, one white couple, traumatized by the suicide of their soldier son Kenneth, prepare to move out of their home only to discover that their house was sold to a black family. The second half, which picks up the action 50 years later, finds a white couple purchasing the same house in a now predominantly black neighborhood, which they plan on leveling (the house, not the neighborhood) to create an even bigger dwelling. That said, they are also completely unaware of the history of the home and its previous residents, one of whom killed himself because he was unable to face the violent acts, he committed against innocent civilians during the Korean War.
A work of significant smarts, sensitivity and salacious skewering, "Clybourne Park" comes to Music Theatre of Connecticut with an electric charge of heat, debate, trigger and wallop that provokes, taunts, entices, shouts and tantalizes.
This is master-class theatre performed by a master class ensemble of seven who tackle the play's bold take on race relations, liberal arguments and neighborhood community history and with edgy persuasion, bullishness and relevant vitality.
This is play that dashes about with sting, movement and stimulation.
There is humor. There is drama. There is dislike. There is surprise. There is patronizing. There is violence.
Here, people, black, white, male, female, gay, straight, behave like total jerks, bigots, fools, assholes and self-righteous pricks.
But Norris, as artist and playwright, crafts a smart, ferocious, well-meaning play that connects the dots, breaks down the walls and acts out the logistics and conflicts with truths, parallels and brilliantly etched set ups, speeches and chaos that thrusts "Clybourne Park" into the spotlight with voyeuristic commitment, confidence and extension.
Staging "Clybourne Park," director Pamela Hill - "Lend Me a Tenor," "Steel Magnolias," "Always...Patsy Cline," "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" - stakes immediate claim to Norris' award-winning work, which, in theatrical terms, emerges as deftly balanced order and composition, mixed generously with lived-in organic feel, immediate pathos and hunger and Donmar Warehouse accompaniment, courtship and immersion.
Under her directorial tutelage, this production is not only one of the best theatrical offerings of the year, but it is also one that prompts fiery debate and conversation long after the actor's take their bows and the stage lights fade to black.
Not keen on blueprint staging or by-the-book mechanics, Hill keeps a tight, concentrated reign on the material, its evolution, its two different time periods, its motley array of characters, their backstories, the flammable subject matter, its slyness, its humor and its satirical swipes at prejudice. Each act fulfills its intended purpose and appeal, validated by the heightened realism and time-bomb ticking/explosiveness of the play text, its thorny machinations, its double-talk and its black/white point-of-view perspective.
As storyteller, Hill only gives so much away, thus creating an atmosphere of suspense and escalating tension that could erupt out of nowhere. So, when the bomb drops, and it does, Hill and fight choreographer Dan O'Driscoll, use the immersive, intimate environs of MTC to rock the boat and rattle and roar with the violent intent, shock and visibility intended by the playwright himself.
In the dual roles of Bev, a lovely, meaningful 1950's housewife and Kathy, an intelligent real estate broker with a wicked sense of humor and mood-kill buzz, Susan Haefner, as both actress and artist, delivers two brilliant character turns that make great use of her talents, her extraordinary dramatic range, her masterful wheel of input and characterization and her instinctive, flip delivery of the playwright's acidic one-liners. Equally impressive is Frank Mastrone, an actor so focused and so genuinely honest, you never once think of him as acting. Here, as Bev's foul-mouthed husband Russ and Dan, a gruff workman who has found the army trunk of their dead son buried in the backyard, Mastrone's deeply felt emotion and strong sense of stage presence indulges and impresses with skilled actor-audience professionalism. Matt Mancuso, last seen as Bob Crewe in MTC's thrilling production of "Jersey Boys" (his performance was quite memorable), time travels to "Clybourne Park" to play not one, but three different roles, all of which he invests with a connection and intent that is reinforced with depth, truth and natural ownership. His appearance as a third character at the end of Act II is so beautifully and sensitively rendered, is should and will move you to tears. The addition of Haefner and Mastrone in the same scene heightens the production's strong, bittersweet conclusion.
Other fine performances are given by Allie Seibold, Rae Janeil, Nick Roesler and SJ Hannah.
Photos of "Clybourne Park" courtesy of Geovanni Colon Rosario