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Clybourne Park: An increasingly comic story of racism and real estate

A scene from the Toronto production of Clybourne Park.

3 out of 4 stars

Written by
Bruce Norris
Directed by
Joel Greenberg
Michael Healey, Maria Ricossa, Sterling Jarvis, Audrey Dwyer, Mark McGrinder, Kimwun Perehinec
Studio 180
Panasonic Theatre

A certain hot property is back on the market in Toronto. Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris's hit comedy about race and real estate, has returned in its Studio 180 production of last year – relocated from the modest converted-factory space of the Berkeley Street Theatre to the roomier, industrial Panasonic as part of the inaugural Off-Mirvish season.

This American award-winning play – Tony, check; Pulitzer, check – takes place in the same Chicago house in two different eras: 1959 and 2009.

In the first act, Russ (Michael Healey) and Bev (Maria Ricossa) are pulling up stakes and moving to the suburbs, anxious to leave behind a residence that contains unhappy memories and neighbours who won't let them forget.

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The couple's real-estate agent has sold their tragedy-tarnished house to a black family, however – leading to protests from white neighbours like Karl (Mark McGrinder), spurred on by a mix of irrational racism and rational, but no less repugnant, fears of diminished property values.

Flash-forward 50 years, and white couple Dan (McGrinder) and Lindsey (Kimwun Perehinec) have purchased the same property, planning to give it an extensive overhaul. Their plans meet the opposition of a black couple (Sterling Jarvis and Audrey Dwyer) looking to maintain the heritage – and height restrictions – of a gentrifying neighbourhood.

Clybourne Park is, in part, a contemporary response to Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 classic A Raisin in the Sun, in which an African-American family experiences problems when they try to buy a house in a white Chicago neighbourhood – but you don't have to have any knowledge of it to appreciate Norris's play.

Indeed, with real estate second only to Mayor Rob Ford as Toronto's top topic of conversation, it's no surprise this comedy has found an enthusiastic audience here. It examines the social currents beneath the falling house prices and bidding wars that snag headlines, exposing the racial subtext of euphemisms like "decline" and "gentrification."

While Norris's play is timely and, especially in its second act, very funny, it can be irritating. There's a straw-man quality to several of the white characters and a self-satisfied mien to its tackling of taboos. It's also saddled with the weight of having, like so many prize-winners south of the border, to be not just an American play, but A Play About America.

Director Joel Greenberg's production hasn't undergone much of a renovation since last winter – and, to my mind, it remains a fixer-upper. David Boechler's set always seemed too televisual, but now it fits uncomfortably in the Panasonic, which has a sunken audience, leading to strange sightlines. His sitcom visuals clash with the tone of the text; as a result, the first act never really finds its comic rhythm.

Michael Healey, nevertheless, does once again find something moving in the haunted, depressed Russ, who has fallen out of step with his time – and Studio 180's production fully comes to life in a hilarious second act. McGrinder has the hardest role in both eras – a white guy who fancies himself open-minded, but isn't; slightly toned down, his performance is more successful this time around – though I still found Dan's final meltdown hard to believe, perhaps because Dwyer plays the woman who provokes his tirade as more reasonable than self-righteous.

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That's probably the biggest problem with Greenberg's production – he judges Clybourne Park's characters from on high, rather than leaving that up to us in the jury.

Clybourne Park runs until March 3.

Editor's note: The set designer for the Clybourne Park, part of the Off-Mirvish season, is David Boechler. Incorrect information appeared in the original version of this article.

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