Review: It's Worth Visiting CLYBOURNE PARK at Elmwood Playhouse

This Grade A production runs through Dec. 2, with the Nov. 30 performance open-captioned for the hearing impaired.

By: Nov. 19, 2023
Review: It's Worth Visiting CLYBOURNE PARK at Elmwood Playhouse

I saw the wickedly trenchant drama Clybourne Park during its Broadway run a dozen or so years ago.  My recollection of it, as I sit here typing this review of the play’s current run at Elmwood Playhouse in Nyack (Rockland County, N.Y.), is somehow vague. Nothing too specific stands out in my mind about that original production, which was celebrated to the tune of four Tonys, including Best Play, as well as a tony Pulitzer Prize.  

And yet … the superlative Elmwood staging of the Bruce Norris play, running through Dec. 2, is, of course, much fresher in my mind – and, trust me, this show stays with you long after you’ve exited – but I daresay my enjoyment and admiration of what Elmwood has mounted exceeds my recalled Broadway experience of the exact same work. 

“Wait a minute,” you may well be thinking, “is this reviewer saying that he thinks a 99-seat suburban theater production 50 miles north of Manhattan outshines this play's Broadway ancestry?” Yeah, I guess you can say that's what I'm saying.

It also can be said that that lofty claim is less surprising for those familiar with the lofty standard of quality theater sustained, show to show, by Elmwood Playhouse. (Full disclosure: I just appeared at Elmwood as Professor Van Helsing in the cast of Dracula, with bloody good direction by Michael Edan.) 

The drum-tight pacing of Clybourne – essential to the playwright’s acid-tongued dark humor and skewering of socio-economic prejudices – is the razor-sharp work of canny director Kathleen Mahan. 

As she told me on opening night, Ms. Mahan combed the script with due diligence to identify the moments ripe for comic relief and then honed the cast’s timing in those moments for maximum effect. Her studiousness pays off handsomely, as the rolling laughter I participated in amply proves.

Before we get to the excellent ensemble, whose work across the board is as riveting as it is skillful – what’s Clybourne Park all about? d

Borrowing verbatim from a precis by Playwrights Horizons (the play’s producer), the premise of the play amounts to “Who are the people in your neighborhood? In 1959, a white family moves out. In 2009, a white family moves in. In the intervening years, change overtakes a neighborhood, along with attitudes, inhabitants, and property values. Loosely inspired by Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, [this] pitch-black comedy takes on the specter of gentrification in our communities, leaving no stone unturned in the process.”

To be clear, you don’t need to be familiar with Hansberry’s landmark masterwork – starring Sidney Poitier in his breakout role – to go all in on Clybourne, but knowing Raisin as the backdrop will augment your appreciation of Clybourne

Mr. Norris displays the lithe dexterity of an Olympic gymnast in how he deploys Raisin as a springboard for his two-act extension of its premise. 

Set in the late 1950s, Raisin ends with its protagonists, working-class family the Youngers, who are Black, readying to move out of their southside Chicago apartment to a white enclave on the city’s outskirts called Clybourne Park. 

However, there’s a blip in the proceedings as Walter Lee Younger (Poitier) is on the verge of accepting an offer from a prissy emissary of the Clybourne community association, named Karl Lindner, to buy the house back from the Youngers (thus keeping the area lily-white). 

At the 11th hour, Mr. Younger realizes that giving up the house to indulge small-minded people of craven prejudice dishonors his family’s legacy and destiny. He rejects the craven Mr. Lindner’s offer, and, as Raisin ends, the Youngers are on their way to Clybourne Park.

In Act I of Norris’s “sequel” (a la A Doll’s House: Part 2), it is 1959. We meet the couple Russ (the irrepressibly gruff Scott Schneider) and Bev (the delightfully domineering Alison Costello) as they prepare to move out of their house. 

Although they are neither seen nor named here, we learn this is to become the Youngers’ house because in pops Karl Lindner (a dynamically neurotic Jason Summers), who is the only character Norris ports over from Raisin. (There are other connections linking the 2009 characters to their 1959 forebears.) 

It’s as if Karl has arrived directly from having his buyback offer to the Youngers rejected. In a last-ditch effort to keep the Youngers out of the neighborhood, Mr. Lindner is offering Bev and Russ a better purchase price in hopes of whitewashing the sale to the Black family. Russ is having none of it, his patience wearing thin with every annoying utterance from Karl and from his clergyman.

Also in the mix of the coarse vituperation that courses throughout the first act are housekeeper Francine (a beautifully understated Maiysha Jones Reilly) and husband Albert (chameleon-like actor’s actor Ryan McNeill), unctuous priest Jim (smooth and soothing James Gillick, a lookalike of movie star Jesse Plemons), and Karl’s pregnant, deaf wife Betsy (ethereal and elegant Elinor Greenway). 

In Act II, Norris flashes forward more than two generations to the present day, reflecting a mirror image of Act I. Now, the same house from Act I that Russ and Bev were leaving in 1959 is being purchased in 2009 by a yuppie-ish Caucasian couple who have grand designs on razing the aging, tired structure and erecting on its lot an edifice whose extreme height will be out of conformity with the rest of the now all-Black Clybourne Park. This has alarmed the community association, which is not sanguine about the architectural plans that in effect would have the new homeowners’ house almost literally lording it over the other homes from on high. 

What adds appreciably to the audience appeal of Clybourne Park is the fun of seeing the cast from Act I do yeoman’s double duty portraying a whole new cast of characters in Act II. 

Their stark transformations are exquisitely handled by each and every one of the actors and by Ms. Mahan. 

In Act II, Ms. Costello and Mr. Gillick play lawyers (Kathy and Tom) handling the transaction’s sticking points. Mr. McNeill and Ms. Reilly are a married couple (Kevin and Lena) voicing the concerns of Clybourne’s community association. Mr. Summers (Steve) and Ms. Greenway (Lindsey) are the showy, entitled home buyers. And Mr. Schneider is Dan, an affable contractor digging ditches in the backyard.   

Suffice it to say, in Act II, the tables have been turned 180 degrees from Act I. Instead of a 1959 white neighborhood’s anxiety about a family of color putting down stakes in their midst, we witness a 2009 Black neighborhood recoiling at the prospect of a white family eager to change the literal and figurative complexion of the area by dint of the out-of-place, overbuilt home they envision -- with the added symbolism of their erasing the lineage of the home, which has a particularly dark secret stretching back a half-century.

Much is impressive about Bruce Norris’s writing in Clybourne Park. He has a remarkably accurate ear for how real people talk, notably the admixture sounds of conversation. He incisively illustrates how we talk at each other, around each other, over each other, and, every once in a while, is the stars align, even with each other. 

In the opening moments of both acts, we eavesdrop on how people are prone to prolong conversations about nothing of consequence, how people are easily thrown off topic even in the midst of meaningful discussions, and how people talk around what they think and feel, to the point that civil discourse turns into civil wars of cynical insults, based not on who we are but on what we think the other person is – as stereotypically defined by ethnicity and social class. 

Mr. Norris is masterly in weaving together complex, fraught interpersonal behavior with societal flashpoints with lucid simplicity – and no shortage of the kind of organic levity born of the human condition. To borrow the title of a popular TV show of the ‘50s hosted by Art Linkletter, Mr. Norris reminds us, most artfully, that people are funny (often without intending to be).

The manner in which he illustrates our racial attitudes might be described, with a nod to late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, as defining prejudice downward – which is to say, we need not think of ourselves as explicitly racist to nevertheless carry around preconceived tropes that pigeonhole other humans into lazy caricatures of our own making. It’s the inexcusable tendency to look at other people as little more than just that – “other.” 

Hence, Mr. Norris has his characters talk with patronizing pity about the man at the grocery store who has his clerk’s job because he is on the spectrum, as if this individual’s defining characteristic is that he’s a hardship case. 

The playwright also scores points in pointing out our self-absorbed ignorance of world cultures born in antiquity, as if they are quaint curiosities that we observe at a cool distance. We can’t be bothered to understand and appreciate the precious histories of the world in all their richness and uniqueness, and contributions to our own relatively infant society.

All of Clybourne Park’s stagecraft is of a laudable piece with the writing, acting, and direction.

Set designer Rob Ward works his usual magic with the twin Act I and II sets depicting the subtle yet distinctive transformation of a middle-class home’s decor across five decades. Also on their game, as usual, are lighting designer Mike Gnazzo, costume designer Janet Fenton, sound designer Larry Wilbur, property designer Beverly De Caprio Huff, and stage manager Allison Schneider. Darian Slattery is a consultant on the production for American Sign Language used in Act I. The Nov. 30 performance is open-captioned for the hearing impaired.

Producing for Elmwood Playhouse are Steve Taylor and Nivia Viera, who also deserve plaudits for the high-quality production they expertly shepherded. 

Elmwood’s Clybourne Park seethes with delicious tension and sizzles with eruptions of laughter from fade in to fade out. There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who know Raisin in the Sun and those who do not. Elmwood Playhouse’s production of Clybourne Park is a must-see for all of the above. 

There’s always time to pay the flashy neon prices of Broadway. Just not this time. Pay a visit instead to Clybourne Park.

Photo Credit: Steve Schnur

BroadwayWorld Awards Voting

RELATED STORIES - Rockland / Westchester

NUTCRACKER DREAM Comes to the Emelin Photo
NUTCRACKER DREAM Comes to the Emelin

The Emelin Theatre will present Nutcracker Dream, performed by Ballet des Amériques, Westchester's premier professional dance company. Inspired by the work of Rudolf Nureyev and Marius Petipa, this 90-minute family-friendly adaptation is an exquisite interpretation of the beloved holiday classic. 

BroadwayWorld Rockland / Westchester Awards December 5th Standings; SEUSSICAL Leads Best M Photo
BroadwayWorld Rockland / Westchester Awards December 5th Standings; SEUSSICAL Leads Best Musical!

It's December, and the first standings of the month have been announced as of Tuesday, December 5th for the 2023 BroadwayWorld Rockland / Westchester Awards! Don't miss out on making sure that your favorite theatres, stars, and shows get the recognition they deserve!

Cast Set for ANASTASIA at White Plains Performing Arts Center Photo
Cast Set for ANASTASIA at White Plains Performing Arts Center

The White Plains Performing Arts Center has revealed the cast for their Mainstage production of ANASTASIA. See who is starring and learn how to purchase tickets!

BROADWAY IN BEDFORD To Present Holiday Concert Featuring Caitlin Houlahan And Ryan Vona Photo
BROADWAY IN BEDFORD To Present Holiday Concert Featuring Caitlin Houlahan And Ryan Vona

An evening of theatrical classics, pop/rock hits, and holiday favorites performed by Broadway veterans Caitlin Houlahan and Ryan Vona at Bedford Playhouse.

From This Author - Bruce Apar

Bruce Apar is principal of boutique marketing agency APAR PR. His career in media spans publishing, acting, writing, marketing, digital production, Hollywood, home entertainment, event production, and... Bruce Apar">(read more about this author)


Lynyrd Skynyrd & ZZ Top in Rockland / Westchester Lynyrd Skynyrd & ZZ Top
Bethel Woods Center for the Arts (8/16-8/16)
Anastasia  in Rockland / Westchester Anastasia
White Plains Performing Arts Center (12/15-1/07)
What Terminal is Frontier at MIA in Rockland / Westchester What Terminal is Frontier at MIA
junemartin (12/11-11/09)
Experience the Magic of Holiday Lane in Rockland / Westchester Experience the Magic of Holiday Lane
American Christmas (11/01-12/22)
Alanis Morissette The Triple Moon Tour in Rockland / Westchester Alanis Morissette The Triple Moon Tour
Bethel Woods Center for the Arts (7/05-7/05)
Nutcracker Dream in Rockland / Westchester Nutcracker Dream
Emelin Theatre for the Performing Arts (12/16-12/29)
Hairspray (Non-Equity) in Rockland / Westchester Hairspray (Non-Equity)
Eisenhower Hall Theatre (1/28-1/28)
Evenings of Dance in Westchester in Rockland / Westchester Evenings of Dance in Westchester
ArtsWestchester gallery (1/26-1/28)
Jason Mraz & The SuperBand in Rockland / Westchester Jason Mraz & The SuperBand
Bethel Woods Center for the Arts (7/12-7/12)
Hootie & The Blowfish in Rockland / Westchester Hootie & The Blowfish
Bethel Woods Center for the Arts (6/27-6/27)

Recommended For You