“What in the world is wrong with a little civility?,” asks the sweetly naïve housewife Bev (Christina Kirk) in the first act of Bruce Norris’s scathing, often tremendously exciting new play Clybourne Park, and after witnessing how superbly he mines ill behavior among the seemingly polite, civility thankfully goes right out the window. Taking its cue from the oily real estate man who gleefully tries to talk the Younger family out of buying their dream home in the classic play A Raisin in the Sun (he’s even a character here, with a fleshed out life we were never privy to in Raisin), Norris’s delicately structured two-acter begins with a couple (Kirk and Frank Wood, both superbly cast) in 1959 grieving their dead son, a former army man, and packing up to move with the help of their black domestic (Crystal A. Dickinson), whose husband (Damon Gupton) arrives to pick her up and ends up smack in the middle of a discussion about depreciating realty and community standards, led by Karl Lindner (Jeremy Shamos, as always, a total wow), the aforementioned Raisin holdover, in tow with his deaf and pregnant wife (Annie Parisse) and an unctuous clergyman (Brendan Griffin) who always seems to be more of a distraction than an assist. A simple musing on the word “Neapolitan” in the top of the act becomes a fraught release of hypocrisy among ’50s types by the end.
But the strength of Clybourne Park lies in how Norris keeps subverting the types represented. When the action shifts to 2009 in the second act, where all of the actors from the first act play completely new people (though with some ties to the 1959 characters), commiserating in the same home over the sale of the property to an expecting couple with an eye on fixing it up, gentrification is never explicitly mentioned, but it’s on the mind, particularly ours. These are not people you’d want to share cocktails with, but they never veer toward caricature either. Its design is not unlike Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, another play in which responsible, community-minded adults slowly unravel before your eyes, but this time the result is messier and less diagrammed, therefore its truths rise to the surface in a way Reza’s play never truly allowed for. Not every observation is terribly fresh (Whole Foods is getting way too much coverage in theater these days), and in hands lesser than this fine cast and expert director Pam MacKinnon, I could easily see this becoming more of a yukfest than a true dark comedy. But it’s a true ride from start to finish with a healthy sense of outrage; I haven’t heard this much squealing in a dark room since the last Twilight movie.
Clybourne Park is now playing at Playwrights Horizons in New York City (416 West 42nd St near 9th Ave) and continues until March 21. Schedule: Tue-Sat at 8pm, Sat & Sun at 2:30pm, Sun at 7:30pm. Running time: 2 hours, no intermission.