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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Clybourne Park Is Definitely a Neighborhood You Want to Spend a Couple Hours in

As we take our seats at Woolly Mammoth for the revelatory and elegant Clybourne Park, we see people sitting everywhere - in the balcony, on the sides, behind the stage (my friend thought there was a mirror) and most importantly in the upstairs room of the house on stage. One young man sits there thinking, moving a bit. We'll soon learn he's an important part of the play, not given any lines, but the "cause" in a cause-and-effect play that examines not just race relations but the way people talk to each other. 

Simply put, if you like theater, go see Clybourne Park. It's not long and Woolly has all kinds of deals, so you have no excuse. In a brilliant conceit, it takes the Chicago neighborhood where the Youngers of A Raisin in the Sun were hoping to get to and, in 1959, shows how the white neighbors react to a black family moving in. That family is not present but might as well be because the white family's maid and her husband are. Even one of the characters, Karl Lindner, who fights the move in Raisin, shows up here. Then in the second act, we move to 2009 when a white family wants to move into what is now a mostly black neighborhood. The black family now represents the neighborhood, and with a couple real estate people present, the situation quickly deteriorates into racial jokes and defensive mechanisms. Writing in The New Yorker about a concurrent Off-Broadway production, the wonderful writer John Lahr calls the second act "a dance of civility" turned into "a fracas of fulmination."

It would be interesting to see the New York production to look for the differences. It's an unusual - and very fortunate for us - situation that we get to see a new play the same time as New Yorkers do. I was able to go to one of Woolly's PWYC performances, whereas tickets for a well-received Off-Broadway play start at $50-plus. I'd like to try to get a hold of Bruce Norris and see how this happened; it appears that Woolly has a relationship with him, having produced his Unmentionables a couple years ago. Acting-wise, for me, Mitchell Hebert as Russ and Dawn Ursula as Francine stand out, but there doesn't seem to be a wrong note. In a season when Studio has been bad, Arena so-so and Woolly its uneven self, this play shines. Go see it.

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