Thursday, February 16, 2012

Tales of Two Cities

Brendan Griffin, Frank Wood, Jeremy Shamos, Annie Perisse, and Christina Kirk Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2012

It was a shrewd move on the part of L.A.’s Center Theater Group: providing local audiences a chance to see Lorriane Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun right alongside Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer-Prize winner, Clybourne Park. While Norris’ comedy, which will make its play for a Tony award later this spring on Broadway, is by no means an outright sequel to Hansberry’s masterpiece of American realism, the two plays are unquestionably related. Specifically, Norris follows the story of the unseen white family referred to in Raisin whose former home the Youngers will soon occupy at great personal cost. How that home has come to market is the story at the heart of Clybourne Park and seeing the two plays in close succession, as I did on a recent Sunday, helps highlight the subtle ways in which Norris riffs on Hansberry’s theme from a contemporary perspective. Of course this also invites a more critical look at Norris’ play and points out another relationship between them in their current stagings for CTG: on the one hand Clybourne Park is a great production of a good play, while across town, A Raisin in the Sun proves to be a good production of a great play. And while this may sound like the two experiences are similar, the distinction is a critical one.

The one character the two plays have in common, Mr. Linder, is ancillary character in A Raisin in the Sun. He attempts to buy the Youngers out of their contract to purchase a new home in the heretofore all-white neighborhood of Clybourne Park. In the first act of Norris’ play, he arrives with his pregnant wife, at the home of Bev and Russ, played here by an excellent Christina Kirk and Frank Wood, having failed in his attempt to convince the Youngers not to move. Events move tangentially away from Hansberry’s story at that point, and an awareness of the events in A Raisin in the Sun are not necessary to get everything in Clybourne Park. Soon a whole different set of broken promises and the failure of some American dreams unfurls as Mr. Linder tries to persuade Bev and Russ not to move. As the pleasantries of 1950s suburban life soon recede to reveal a more unpleasant underbelly to this suburban Chicago community, the emotional scope of the play deepens. Bev and Russ’ maid, Francine, and her husband, Albert, are also present for much of this brewing confrontation and Norris revisits some of the points about racism and racial politics of the period Hansberry so eloquently laid out over half a century ago. And while the politics of the period may be familiar, the words can still sting and the play can generate a fair amount of discomfort at times. (This is a popular strategy on Broadway right now and viewers may be revisiting Other Desert Cities again over the course of the evening.) But the project is different from Hansberry's, and the African-American characters in Clybourne Park often play a secondary role to the unfolding events in Norris' play.

After an intense and devastating first act, Clybourne Park shifts and the same set of actors now play two different couples. Jeremy Shamos and Annie Parisse who were previously Mr. Linder and his wife, are now Steve and Lindsey, a young, wealthy white couple who have just purchased the same now dilapidated house in Clybourne Park in 2009 and have made plans to tear it down and build a new home on the same lot. A married African-American couple played by Crystal A. Dickinson and Damon Gupton, Lena and Kevin, have come from the local neighborhood group to discuss a petition filled with the city’s planning commission with them. Lena is a great niece to Lena Younger and she expresses objections over the expansive construction plans for the site with an interest in maintaining architectural integrity to a now predominantly black neighborhood undergoing its own gentrification process. Norris revels in the many inversions and parallels between the two scenarios and makes wry use of the recasting of the actors in roles that diverge in ironic and unexpected ways such as when Brendan Griffin who plays the local priest, Jim, in Act I is now a gay community housing advocate in Act II. Soon the conference begins to unravel in a similar fashion to that prior meeting some 60 years ago. And while Norris wraps up the play with a stunner of a conclusion, the second act feels more conversational and unstructured than the first half. The characters hash out the contemporary veneer that disguises the underlying tensions about racism and economic disparities and Norris takes some glee in doing this in a progressively more blunt fashion. But the whole scene feels contrived and reaching with less natural dramatic development than the searing punch in the gut that precedes it.

Deidrie Henry, Kevin T Carroll, Kim Staunton, Kenya Alexander, and Brandon Davis Brown Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2012
Norris still takes an optimistic tact at the end though, which is an appropriate homage to a similar sense that ends A Raisin in the Sun. As the Youngers leave for their new home, there is sacrifice ahead, but they have their pride an their family intact. Center Theater Group invited the Ebony Repertory Theater in Los Angeles to revive its recent production of A Raisin in the Sun at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City after a well-received run last year under the direction of Phylicia Rashad. The play is virtually indestructible with poetry that still amazes at nearly every turn. One almost gasps to hear Berneatha proclaim that all the tyranny in the world will never put a God in the heavens. Hansberry's play is filled with so much, and so much that is so well written that one still sits almost agape at the play's quality and working.

But as good as the play is, Rashad and her cast don't always rise to its level. Mostly they do and Kim Staunton's Lena Younger and Deidrie Henry's Ruth provide two formidable anchoring performances that seem to keep the rest of the cast on track when they are around. And much like the characters they play, when they are absent some of the smaller parts veer off into more pedestrian realms. But the show gets the job done, filling these characters with the kind of life that leaves them haunting you while watching Norris' Clybourne Park and seeing the world they are about to step into. Though oddly, despite the quality of CTG's Broadway bound production, Norris' characters don't ever enter the mind when watching A Raisin in the Sun. Clybourne Park is a formidable edifice, but undoubtedly one that is at its best due to the foundations on which it was built.

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