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Monday, August 1, 2011

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

Woolly Mammoth has brought back the revelatory and elegant Clybourne Park and it is even better than it was last year - this due to the comfort of the actors in their roles. The stage is again set up with 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.

Winner of last year's Pulitzer Prize for theater, Clybourne Park takes a brilliant conceit and runs with it. Where Tom Stoppard's Arcadia went back forth across 200 years to solve a mystery, Clybourne Park shows two acts 50 years apart to perpetuate a mystery: Why can't we still talk to each other without our preconceptions? The play 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 last year 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." Acting-wise, for me, Mitchell Hebert as Russ and Dawn Ursula as Francine continue to stand out, but there doesn't seem to be a wrong note. Go see it.

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