Clybourne Park, now through February 20, 2011, at A.C.T. is surely the funniest play you'll ever see about racism. Actually, it may be one of the funniest plays you'll ever see about anything. But amid the hilarity -- numerous follow-up lines are drowned out by the audience's laughter -- are scathing cultural critiques, a gut-wrenching family tragedy and not even a whisper of future redemption. Given the play's glum content, it's a credit to playwright Bruce Norris, director Jonathan Moscone and especially the extraordinary company of actors, that one is able to walk out of the theater so full of hope.
Norris's play imagines what might have happened to the family that moved out of the house in the fictitious Chicago neighborhood of Clybourne Park, which is where Lorraine Hansberry's Younger clan is headed by the end of her 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun. Raisin, which gets a rare Bay Area production at the Pear Avenue Theatre in Mountain View this June, focused on an African-American family's decision to move to an all-white enclave. Clybourne examines the impact of that decision on the neighborhood and the families that lived there for the next 50 years.
Minister Jim (Manoel Felciano), Beverly (René Augesen) and Bev's husband, Russ (Anthony Fusco)
As the lights come up, Russ Stoller (Anthony Fusco) is sitting in what's obviously his favorite easy chair surrounded by stacks of packed and half-packed cardboard boxes, listening to the radio, reading National Geographic and eating ice cream from the carton. The home is charming, complete with a handsome fireplace flanked by a pair of stained-glass windows.
It's the middle of the afternoon on a Saturday. The movers will arrive on Monday, but Russ is still in his pajamas. His wife, Bev (René Augesen), is dressed, aproned and coiffed, busy with the endless tasks of moving as she gives polite, slightly OCD instructions to their African-American maid, Francine (Omozé Idehenre). Despite her industriousness, Bev is distracted, troubled not by the moment's unequal distribution of labor but by the cause of her husband's lethargy.
The inane conversation that follows between Bev and Russ about the derivation of the word Neopolitan (the type of ice cream he happens to be eating) is one of many linguistic and geographical diversions that Norris introduces in each of the play's two acts. Moscone and his actors give their full attention to these feints, making the moments when the play's real subjects rear their heads that much more jarring, and effective.
The public reason for the Stoller's move is to cut Russ's commute to six-and-and-a-half minutes, "door to door," as he puts it to a young minister named Jim (Manoel Felciano), who has popped in, apparently at Bev's request, to check in on gloomy Russ. Naturally Russ is having none of the minister's ham-fisted ministrations. He just wants to be left alone, to bathe in the trivial and mundane in order to escape the demons in his head.
As he expresses, in no uncertain terms, his displeasure at being psychoanalyzed by Jim, Francine's husband, Albert (Gregory Wallace), enters to pick up his wife. And then, a few beats later, Russ's Saturday-afternoon solitude is irrevocably shattered by the noisy arrival of Karl Lindner (Richard Thieriot) and his very pregnant wife, Betsy (Emily Kitchens).
Minister Jim (Manoel Felciano) and Beverly (René Augesen), with Betsy (Emily Kitchens) and her husband, Karl (Richard Thieriot)
Karl Lindner, in case you don't know, is the guy from the Clybourne Park neighborhood association in Raisin who tries to bribe the Younger family into staying put. In Norris's update, Karl plays a similar role, only this time it's to stop Russ and Bev from selling their home to a "colored" family (Karl is proud of his progressive ability to use the words "colored" and "Negro" interchangeably). In the name of his community's "needs" and his insincere concern for the sense of alienation that is likely to plague the souls of the Youngers, Karl argues for the separation of the races.
He also suggests that allowing a black family to move into his white neighborhood is going to destroy its character and lower property values. Norris baits us to bristle at Karl's clumsy racism, and then, in the second act, brilliantly causes us to question our own liberal do-gooder impulses when we see what the passage of 50 years has done to Ralph Funicello's beautiful set. What a play.
The A.C.T production of Clybourne Park runs through February 20, 2011 at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit act-sf.org.