Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and John Updike’s novel Gertrude and Claudius put the cast and universe of Shakespeare’s Hamlet to fresh uses. Clybourne Park, too, recycles a familiar play–Lorraine Hansberry’s earnest 1959 drama A Raisin in the Sun. Bruce Norris sets his 2010 piece in the living room of 406 Clybourne Street, the same house that the African-American Youngers are preparing to move into at the conclusion of A Raisin in the Sun. The property is in an all-white Chicago neighborhood, and the Youngers have rejected a buyout from the homeowners’ association to keep them from integrating the block.
Set in 1959, the first part of Norris’ two-act play (which includes a superfluous coda), focuses on the white couple, Russ and Bev, who are about to move out. A painful family secret explains why the two are so eager to leave that they are willing to unload their house on a black family at a reduced price. Obnoxious Karl Lindner, a representative of the homeowners’ association and the only character who appears in both plays, makes a futile attempt to dissuade Russ and Bev. But the couple has other problems on their minds, and the visit of a smarmy clergyman only exacerbates their distress.
Act two reverses the racial dynamics. It is set in 2009, when Clybourne Park, now blighted and largely African-American, is undergoing gentrification. Steve and Lindsey, an affluent white couple who has bought the Clybourne Street house, face hostility from Lena and Kevin, a black couple who oppose the interlopers’ ambitious remodeling plans. Lena reveals that her great-aunt bought the property back in 1959, and she seethes at white disrespect for what she considers her neighborhood’s historic values.
Each act begins with similar jokes about geography, and the actors from act one reappear in act two in different roles, suggesting that the problems of 1959 persist in 2009 in different form. If, as Karl Marx asserted, history repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce, so does theater. Norris has grafted a comedy of the absurd onto the social issues of Hansberry’s play and, though Clybourne Park won a Pulitzer and a Tony, the result is an awkward hybrid of the antic and the didactic.
“They’re all a bunch of idiots,” says Francine, Russ and Bev’s black domestic, about all the inane white folks shouting at one another. Matthew Byron Cassi has directed a spirited production of enjoyable idiocy, but the social themes seem stale and tendentious. The four African Americans, played by Andrew Hardaway and Megan van Dyke, are the only sane characters amid an ensemble of airheads, bigots and loons played with gusto by Catherine Babbitt, John Stillwaggon, Meredith Bell Alvarez and Ross Avant. Gary Hoeffler’s layered performance as Russ and, later, as Dan, a goofy contractor, anchors the production. At first mordantly passive aggressive then merely aggressive, his Russ suggests depths of anguish that the cartoon figures surrounding him cannot fathom. The mortal questions he confronts cannot be reduced to black and white or an easy walk in Clybourne Park.
8pm Fri-Sat, 3pm & 8pm Sun
The Playhouse, Cellar Theater
800 W Ashby
Through April 6