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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Clybourne Park

"I think things are about to change. I really do." — Bev
And they are, but not for the better, Bev. That's the darkly ironic closing line in Bruce Norris's astonishing play "Clybourne Park" at the Taper. This sort of play makes me want to see everything else the author has written or will write. It combines tragedy with comedy with breahtaking smoothness. It's also about something, clearly but with the fumbling tones of everyday speech, in this play, raciscm.

Both acts of this play begin with such humdrum dialogue that you think you're in for a boring evening. Gradually, as Norris strips away the layers with the astute assistance of director Pam MacKinnon, you see what he's up to.

It all takes place in 406 Clybourne Street, the home the Stollers have just purchased. Although inspired by "A Raisin in the Sun" by Lorraine Hansberry, it uses neither the characters nor plot line of that play. Nevertheless, "Raisin" hangs over the house like a ghost.

Act I begins in 1959, as the family is preparing to move out. They are Russ (Frank Wood), a withdrawn middle-aged white man; his wife Bev (Christina Kirk), whose tense prattle tries to make up for his silences; their black maid Francine (Crystal A. Dickinson) and her husband Albert (Damon Gupton). They're visited by the white minister Jim (Brendan Griffin) and Karl Lindner (Jeremy Shamos), who represents the neighborhood association whose purpose is to keep Clybourne Park white, and his deaf and pregnant wife Betsy (Annie Parisse). Karl fails to buy Russ out and retaliates by threatening to tell the tragic story of Kenneth, Russ and Bev's only child, who hangs himself after committing war crimes.

Act II fast forwards to 2009, where a completely new set of characters sits in the empty house. It's cunningly stripped in the intermission to Daniel Ostling's stunning scenic design which depicts what can happen to a house in fifty years. They are Steve (Jeremy Shamos) and his pregnant wife Lindsey (Annie Parisse), the new owners who are bent on doing the Right Thing and Kevin (Damon Gupton) and his wife Lena (Crystal A. Dickinson) who is a former resident of the house. The black characters have come to persuade Steve and Lindsey to show some respect. Tom (Brendan Griffin) is in charge of their petition and Kathy (Christina Kirk) plays Steve and Lindsey's long-haired realtor. Frank Wood plays Dan, the handyman, with a ringing voice that cuts through the genteel facade who also brings in the foot locker which Russ buried in the first act and which contains a secret.

This act relies less on dramatic revelations and events and more on racial jokes to move it along. They're laugh-provoking but incongruous. The story of Kenneth is remembered by Lena and still casts a pall. What breaks through the trivial conversation in this act is not a tragic story but veiled racism. As in Act 1, it hasn't really gone away. There's no more improvement association but the attitudes haven't changed. The black characters, subdued before the whites in Act 1, here flash rage.

The cast is uniformly excellent. However, the characters of Bev in Act 1 and Lindsey in Act 2 are annoying. They both cover up their feelings and emotions with obvious embarassment.

There's a coda, a third time change to before it all began, involving Kennth and his mother. This is the third time the Kenneth story is brought in and it opens the play up. Beyond the clever trivia that open the two acts and the jokes and the apparently insoluble issue of race in our country, there's the tragedy of war and what it does to young men.

Playwright: Bruce Norris
Director: Pam MacKinnon
Cast: Francine/Lena (Crystal A. Dickinson), Jim/Tom/Kenneth (Brendan Griffin), Albert/Kevin (Damon Gupton), Bev/Kathy (Christina Kirk), Betsy/Lindsey (Annie Parisse), Karl/Steve (Jeremy Shamos), Russ/Dan (Frank Wood).
Scenic Design: Daniel Ostling
Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi
Lighting Design: Allen Lee Hughes
Sound Design: John Gromada
Where: Mark Taper Forum, Center Theatre Group, Los Angeles. Reservations: (213) 972-7211.
When: January 11-February 26, 2010.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on January 27.
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