Thursday, 13 October 2011

Clybourne Park (MTC)

Clybourne Park, a play by Bruce Norris, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama this year, and I think I can see why. It's cleverly constructed and tackles the sticky subject of racial prejudice in a way that's both sobering and entertaining.

The plot
The first act takes place in 1959 Chicago, as a middle-aged 'white' couple prepare to move out of the house which holds sad memories surrounding the death of their son, a veteran of the Korean War. They are assisted by their 'black' housemaid, whose husband comes to collect her, and forestalled by the local priest and passive-aggressive neighbour (with pregnant deaf wife), who have discovered that the house has been bought by an African-American family. These so-called 'friends' try to bully the grieving couple into defaulting on the sale, on account it would lower the tone (and price) of the neighbourhood.

After the interval, Act 2 zooms forward to 2009, taking place in the same living room of the same house during planning negotiations among neighbours. This time, it's a young white couple moving into what has become a black residential area, and they want to demolish and rebuild. Only it turns out that the African-American couple they're negotiating with have ties to the family who originally bought the house in 1959... What starts off as real-estate and building plan wrangling degenerates into a racially founded conflict.

The big issues of community and racial conflict tackled in this play are well done and offer much food for thought. But, even though I felt the first act took a while to get going, it was the clever writing and construction that particularly appealed to me.

Inversion & irony
The same cast of seven actors tackle the roles in both acts, and Norris has made wonderful use of symmetry, inversion and irony in the dual casting:
- Grieving father Russ in Act 1 spends much of the act promising to drag down a trunk from the first floor (containing letters etc from his dead son), which he ultimately buries in the back yard; the same actor plays a tradie (Dan) digging a trench outside in Act 2, interrupting events in the living room, and ultimately digging up that same trunk and discovering the contents.
- Karl Lindner, the passive-aggressive neighbour, and his wife Betsy transform into the WASP couple (Steve and Lindsey) seeking to move into the neighbourhood . . . still pregnant. (Their lawyer in the second act turns out to be the daughter of their first incarnated couple.)
- The priest (Jim) in the first act is played by the same actor who plays the mediator in the second act . . . who turns out to be gay.
- The African-American couple in Act 1 (Francine the housemaid and her husband), who could never hope to live in such a house, metamorphose into the Act 2 couple (Lena and Kevin) making life difficult for the newcomers to their neighbourhood. In both acts they have 3 children. At the end of Act 1, the husband lays restraining hands on Russ, who shouts "don't you touch me!". This is inverted at the end of Act 2, when his alter-ego yells the same words.

A Raisin in the Sun
The other interesting fact about this play is that it's a response to the classic 1958 play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, which was based on real-life events surrounding a black family's experiences in a Chicago neighbourhood. In fact, the African-American family who have bought the house in the first act of Clybourne Park is the Younger family, whose story is told in the earlier play. The minor character of Karl Lindner in 'Raisin' (the only white character) is the very same passive-aggressive neighbour in Act 1 of Clybourne Park, and has just come from his scene in 'Raisin' when he enters 'Clybourne'.

In this way, Clybourne Park hypothesises what might have led to the sale of a nice house in a white neighbourhood to an aspiring African-American family, and explores what might have ensued thereafter.

The MTC production of this play was directed by Peter Evans. I felt it took a while to get going, with the timing on the opening inane debate about the origins of the word 'neopolitan' a little rocky -- not to mention a bunch of awkward American accents. Then the priest (Luke Ryan) comes in to offer council to Russ (Greg Stone), but it's not until the entrance of the obnoxious Karl (Patrick Brammall) that things really start to get interesting. Brammall's Karl is certainly one of the most memorable characters, and Laura Gordon does a great job as his deaf wife. Alison Whyte ably plays Russ's wife Bev, with Zahra Newman as Francine the housemaid and Bert LaBonté as her husband.

The second act opens with most of the characters amid negotiations, and it took me quite a while to figure out why they were there and what all the individual roles were. Due to its contemporary setting, the scenario (conflict over building permits) was much easier to relate to, although it did degenerate into a bit of a slanging match. Everything came full circle, however, with the discovery of the buried chest -- although it could be argued that this and a final tacked-on 'ghost' scene were largely unnecessary.

Overall I enjoyed this play a great deal, despite its imperfections. There was certainly a lot in it for a writer to admire, plus plenty of entertainment value underpinned by serious themes. Here's a link to a more thorough and insightful review . . . (I think I've got some way to go in the theatre review stakes!).

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