Friday, April 20, 2012

Same address, funnier bigots

Posted By on Fri, Apr 20, 2012 at 10:34 AM

Depending on how recently you've seen or read Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, the name Karl Lindner and the address 406 Clybourne Park may or may not be meaningful to you. Lindner was the chairman of Clybourne Park's New Neighbors Orientation Committee who attempted to dissuade the black Younger family from moving into his lily-white neighborhood — arriving at the Youngers' Southside Chicago tenement on moving day just to add to the imposition.

Well, in Bruce Norris's Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park, which opened a couple of nights ago on Broadway, ole Karl retains his pinpoint timing, paying an Act 1 visit to 406 Clybourne Park just as the white family, Russ and Bev, are getting set to move out — in an effort to get his neighbors to nullify the sale. Aside from the crosstown 1959 setting, the biggest difference when comparing Norris's whites and blacks with Hansberry's is that the disputes at Clybourne Park aren't nearly as eloquent — and understanding between characters, even husbands and wives, is far worse. Add to this a stultifyingly trivial level of interests, preoccupations and discourse, and Norris's Chicago is far more comical than Hansberry's. In a perversely satirical way, because of the basic failures to communicate, Norris's assessment of Americans is far bleaker and more hopeless.


An extra difference between the two plays is deliciously layered on by the Actor's Theatre of Charlotte version directed by Dennis Delamar, which celebrated its opening night a week before the Broadway opening. Delamar casts Robert Lee Simmons as Karl and eggs him on to add a buffoonish edge to his unctuous boosterism, discarding the starchiness we normally see in Raisin and giving us a more sweaty, compulsively chatty nervousness. A brilliant portrayal, not to be missed.

But Karl isn't the only source of friction in the neighborhood. Bev patronizes her black maid, Francine, and Russ partly blames his neighbors for his son's suicide after he returned from military service in Korea. All this comes out when Jim, the neighborhood pastor, tries comforting Russ before his bitter, good-riddance departure. Francine's husband, Albert, only irritates Russ more by helping to move a heavy trunk from upstairs without his approval. Completing the tableau is Betsy, Karl's pregnant and deaf wife. In a room full of people who won't hear what Karl has to say, chalk up one who can't. And if you thought a pregnant deaf woman would be granted immunity from insults, think again.

We fast-forward 50 years to 2009 in Act 2 with no appreciable advance in racial or domestic harmony. Now a white couple wishes to move into what is now considered a historically black neighborhood, and a couple of black petitioners wish to impose preconditions before they tear down the old crack house to build something more civilized. All the players who appeared before intermission swap out into new roles that emphasize all that has remained the same despite our vaunted progress and political correctness.

Simmons is only slightly more sensitive as the new homeowner, Steve, and Sarah Mack, once again the wife after signing Betsy, is only marginally better at staying on the same page. Brandi Nicole Feemster, after her stint as the deferential Francine, is now the insistently assertive Lena — named after Lena Younger, the matriarch of Raisin — trying vainly to keep the wayward negotiations on track. After his quiet portrait of Albert, Jeremy DeCarlos seems just as cool and easygoing as Lena's husband, but beware of lighting his fuse!

Ross Merrick tries playing peacemaker in both acts, first as the Pastor Jim and then as gay community activist Tom. Wags might claim that's no switch at all. Mitzi Corrigan tosses off Bev in Act 1 with a kindly grandmotherly suffering before switching to Kathy, the child Betsy was carrying, now grown up to be Steve's lawyer. Craig Spradley seethes and explodes with bitterness as the nihilistic Russ, returning as Dan, the neighborhood handyman after the five-decade intermission. Spradley also seals and opens the important time capsule that cleverly links Norris's two acts together.

All of these actors make the hellishly difficult task of not listening to one another, overlapping each other, and carrying on separate conversations look absolutely natural. It's more than natural: it's a madly funny, phantasmagorical mirror of our outward and inward selves, horrifyingly candid and true.

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