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Clybourne Park: Two generations of race, class and real estate angst

Audrey Dwyer, Michael Healey, Sterling Jarvis, Kimwun Perehinec and Mark McGrinder in Clybourne Park.

3 out of 4 stars

From Willy Loman trying to pay that last instalment on his mortgage in Death of a Salesman to the unscrupulous hustlers attempting to unload worthless parcels of Florida land in Glengarry Glen Ross, so many of the best American plays have been about real estate, in one way or another.

Clybourne Park, a nasty and brilliant Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy by Chicago-based playwright Bruce Norris, tackles this North American obsession head on – but also digs into the politics of race and class buried beneath housing bubbles and bidding wars. Could it arrive in Canada at a better moment?

Audaciously, Norris's play tells the story of Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 classic A Raisin in the Sun from the perspective of its sole white character.

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In Hansberry's famous drama, the first by an African-American woman to open on Broadway (where Norris's play also opens this month), the Younger family of inner-city Chicago is visited by Karl Lindner from the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, who offers the black family money to not buy a house in his all-white neighbourhood.

Clybourne Park begins in the house in question, where Bev (Maria Ricossa) and her gloomy husband Russ (Michael Healey) are packing up for a move to the suburbs. They've sold their place to the Youngers for less than it's worth, the price being depressed – like Russ – due to a tragedy that took place within the house's walls.

Soon, Lindner (an awkward Mark McGrinder) shows up with his deaf wife Betsy (Kimwun Perehinec) in tow, to try to convince the couple to back out of the sale.

Russ and Bev refuse to back out of the sale, but Karl thinks he's right, that racial mixing will be bad for both blacks and whites. Indeed, he tries to convince Russ and Bev's African-American maid Francine (Audrey Dwyer) and her husband Albert (Sterling Jarvis) on this point in a discussion that eventually leads to an all-out explosion of tempers in the household, but perhaps not for the reasons you'd expect.

Flash forward from 1959 to 2009 and, as it turns out, Lindner was correct about part of his argument at least. The arrival of African-American families in the inner suburb of Clybourne Park led to "white flight" and the neighbourhood's property values went into decline in the 1960s.

Now, however, house prices are back on the rise as Clybourne Park gentrifies – and the local Property Owners' Association is meeting to discuss proposed plans to tear down the Youngers' old homestead and build a new house on the same spot.

This time, it's a white couple named Steve and Lindsey (played by McGrinder and Perehinec) whose real-estate dreams are being stymied by a black couple named Kevin and Lena (Dwyer and Jarvis). Since we're in 2009 and in the United States, naturally there are lawyers involved too, which allows Ricossa and Jeff Lillico to give a pair of hilarious supporting performances.

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At first, the conversation is about frontage and height with digressions about holidays in Prague, but eventually the subject of race surfaces (even as the builders find something else buried in the back yard). As the initially friendly meeting devolves into a shouting match, the two couples unleash a barrage of racist and sexist jokes in an attempt to prove who is least easily offended. (If you want to know what the difference is between a white woman and a tampon, well, you'll have to buy a ticket.)

Norris is a satirist who's particularly adept at poking through the surface of white liberal guilt, but director Joel Greenberg's production only gets half of his play right.

In the section set in 1959, much of the politically incorrect humour surrounding the treatment of the minority characters falls flat. Greenberg runs away from the material, directing it in a broad style that makes it seem like a bad sitcom instead of delivering the perfectly pitched insensitivity of a cable drama like Mad Men.

Even the comedy that isn't politically charged, like the opening banter between Russ and Bev about Neapolitan ice cream, comes off as excruciatingly unfunny due to the mismatched tone.

Thanks to a deeply felt performance by Healey as the troubled Russ, however, at least the drama of this opening act lands somewhat effectively.

In the second act, however, Clybourne Park springs to life and the production soars. Director and actors clearly find skewering contemporary culture more comfortable, the exception being a huffing and puffing McGrinder, who misses the meat of some of his best angry-white-male lines like: "How can the majority be marginalized?"

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In the end, Studio 180 may not be giving Toronto the ideal production of Clybourne Park, but for those who want to see what the international buzz over this play is about, it's cheaper than a flight to New York.

Clybourne Park

  • Written by Bruce Norris
  • Directed by Joel Greenberg
  • Starring Michael Healey, Maria Ricossa, Sterling Jarvis
  • A Studio 180 production in association with Canadian Stage
  • At the Berkeley Street Theatre in Toronto until April 28, 2012
  • 3 stars
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