BWW Reviews: The Alley's CLYBOURNE PARK is a Must See Humorous Social Commentary
There is always that one play that captures attention at a national or international level. It hits a nerve and becomes dominant in the cultural zeitgeist. That play is talked about for a couple of years because of powerful productions in prominent theatre cities. It wins Tony Awards. It wins Olivier Awards. Sometimes it wins the Pulitzer Prize. Then it is tucked away like a nice museum piece, and the world moves on. Almost all of that is true for Houston native Bruce Norris' CLYBOURNE PARK. Except this provocative, insightful, and humorous play, I predict, will not be tucked away. It will not be some untouched museum piece awaiting a flashy revival. This fiery comedy that is more of a well-polished mirror than theatrical exhibition has a long future of production ahead of it. Walking out of the opening night performance at The Alley, I understood all of the hype surrounding this piece. Simply put, CLYBOURNE PARK is must see social commentary.
Bruce Norris' script invites audiences into the living room of the very house that Lorraine Hansberry's Younger family from A RAISIN IN THE SUN is purchasing. It is 1959 and the original owners are moving to the suburbs, escaping the daily grind of living near downtown Chicago. After meeting the Youngers and offering to buy them out, Karl Linder appeals to Bev and Russ to prevent the African-American family from buying the house. Karl Linder and the other members of the neighborhood worry that the bargain sale in addition to the new African-American neighbors will cause all the homes in Clybourne Park to depreciate in value. Skip ahead to 2009, and a white family is attempting to purchase the run down house. Clybourne Park, now an all-black neighborhood is undergoing gentrification. An African-American couple and representatives of the neighborhood association is opposed to the plans to tear down and rebuild on the property because of the history that will be erased. The propriety of the conversation quickly devolves into a battle over racial issues that are intrinsically rooted into the American psyche and experience. It is 50 years later and the giant elephants of race, race relations, and racial tensions are still present in the room.
Under the direction of James Black, the play clips along at break neck speed. It induces riotous laughter as the audience is quickly exposed the social problems that exist in both acts of the play, many of which are unchanged in the face of the 50 year time span. With skilled precision, James Black allows CLYBOURNE PARK to be held up as a pristinely polished, gleaming mirror to the audience. As we laugh, we know we are all complicit in and guilty of similar, if not the same, cracks in our own faulty social mores. James Black ensures that every humorous line and every emotionally charged line fall equal gravity and weight into the audiences' laps. Like Brue Norris, James Black doesn't solve the problems for us, but ensures that we leave the theatre highly aware and talking of the various social issues presented.
As a whole, the ensemble cast is spectacular in their commitments to decisive and utterly realistic characterizations. They each play two roles, expect Jay Sullivan who plays three. However, more interesting and impressive than that is how despite the 50 year gap their characters share similar personality traits.
Jeffrey Bean's Russ and Dan are both self-centered to a flaw. They engage in conversation actively, but tune out parts they feel are unnecessary. Likewise, they both obsess over the foot locker, but for different reasons. While funny in the first act, the audience is floored by the embarrassingly public emotional break that Russ undergoes. Here the audience sees Jeffrey Bean at his finest with explosive dialogue and mannerisms perfectly intertwined for devastating emotional affect. In the second act, he brings the house down as blunt, crass, treasure seeking Dan. While mostly off stage in the second act, Jeffrey Bean's adroitly timed jocular punch lines and sight gags are delightful, showstopping morsels of comedic genius.
As Bev and Kathy, Elizabeth Bunch does a fantastic job portraying two women who are seemingly afraid of their own intelligence and the power it offers them. As Bev, when told that knowledge is power, she states "Well, then I choose to remain powerless." In this moment, she opens Bruce Norris' play beyond racial issues and explores the demeaning pigeon hole that society tucks women into. She is Bev, homemaker and wife, meaning she needs no power. Yet, at the end of the act she bravely states, "Maybe we should learn what the other person eats." This makes the final line of the production, when she returns on stage as Bev for the play's coda, all the more heartbreaking and visceral. "I really believe things are about to change for the better." After both acts have played out, the audience can see where we've been and where we are. Neither is exponentially better than the other. But there's hope that the elephants in the room may hang themselves from the rafters with extension cords and finally provide Americans with a freedom from racial tensions; a freedom where all boys and girls are created and treated as equal. It is Elizabeth Bunch's dynamic and believable performances as Bev and Kathy that allow the audience's mind to explore and ponder Bruce Norris' words with such ease and sincerity.
Philip Lehl's Karl and Steve are both flawlessly acted. They both have a habit of sticking their foot in their mouth and saying all the things that social rules indicate that they shouldn't. The others character consistently beg and implore them to stay quiet, but they continue to talk with mortifying effects. Both of Philip Lehl's characters get so caught up on the issues that their verbal diarrhea flows with reckless abandon, bringing tears of horror and laughter to the audience's eyes. As we see Philip Lehl develop and explore his characters on stage, we are all reminded of someone we know and of woefully of ourselves.
As the pregnant and deaf Betsy and the pregnant Lindsey, Emily Neves plays characters that are simply lost in the commotion of it all. Deaf Betsy is the butt of several off-color jokes dealing with disabilities and induces the cast to make off-color jokes about the intellectually disabled sacker at the grocery store as well. Lindsey, not being deaf, is more vocal but still lacks the emotional prowess to go toe to toe with the others. Emily Neves skillfully creates a character that is defensive and easy offended. She feasibly reacts to being overlooked by her husband in both acts. Emily Neves' characters are fully realized and cleverly played.
As Francine and Lena, Libya V. Pugh presents two women who have amazingly strong talents for social restraint. In both acts she upholds the veneer of social propriety for as long as she can before letting it slip to the ground. Both of these characters take emotional beatings, being thrust into awkward and wholly uncomfortable situations. Libya V. Pugh makes her characters ' discomforted and tormented feelings largely perceptible, making her moments of charged anger and animosity so thrilling and electrifying that she earns boisterous cheers and applause from the audience.
David Rainey plays Albert and Kevin with a discernible integrity. Albert is not present for a majority of the first act, but stands in to shield Francine as much as possible, putting both of them into a disgusting hypothetical conversation. His Kevin is socially savvy and brings several elements of the play full circle, including his showstopping line, "Do you ski?" The character gets heated and reacts accordingly as well. David Rainey, as both Albert and Kevin, easily earns and keeps the audience's support, as we are forced to face our own demons and swallow the bitter pill of truth presented by Bruce Norris.
Taking on three roles Jay Sullivan portrays a stiff, stuffy man of the cloth named Jim, Tom who is a stiff upper-lipped lawyer, and Bev and Russ' distraught and broken son, Kenneth. He puts himself intro each of the three roles, creating distinctive personalities that really take a back burner to the other characters and conflicts running through the narrative. However, when he comes down the central staircase as Kenneth for the play's deeply meaningful coda, a heavy silence fills the room. Jay Sullivan physically creates a character that is so emotionally hard-hitting, that the audience is forced to pause their minds and hearts, and they have no choice but to listen to the delivery of some of the best writing recently written for stage.
Scenic Design by Kevin Rigdon perfectly captures the pristine polish of a beautiful 1950s middle-class home and the urban dereliction of a house that has sat unoccupied for some time. Both dressings for the set are vastly different and evocative of the time periods. They are powerful and telling, serving to further tell the story and ground it in realism. Moreover, James Black and Kevin Rigdon made a fascinating and appreciated choice to have Jeffrey Bean begin and end the show seated in a chair in the same location on stage and to clothe the set change crew in construction worker uniforms.
Janice Pytel's Costume Design works perfectly for the piece and expertly tells the audience what period each act takes place in.
Pierre Dupree's Sound Design really comes to life in the second act, where he purposefully and adeptly mixes in sounds of construction in the back yard. Also, his gradual shifting through the decades in the music choices played in the auditorium during intermission was fantastic.
The Alley's production of CLYBOURNE PARK makes it abundantly clear why this play has been talked about so much and why it has won so many prestigious awards. Every moment of the production drips with immaculately practiced and perfected talent. Every element of the play profoundly works! It leaves the audience breathless and wheezing as we laugh until our sides hurt and are given many ideas to chew on and digest in the wake of the production. As I previously stated, The Alley's production of Bruce Norris' challenging, exciting, and compelling CLYBOURNE PARK is a must see!
All photos by Jann Whaley. Courtesy of The Alley Theatre.
(Left to Right) Libya V. Pugh as Francine and Elizabeth Bunch as Bev.
(Left to Right) Libya V. Pugh as Francine and David Rainey as Albert.