Clybourne Park, a story about race and real estate, ghosts and buried secrets, won a bevy of awards when it first premiered, including the Tony Award, the the Olivier and Evening Standard Awards, and the granddaddy of them all, the Pulitzer. So it was with no small amount of expectation I went into yesterday night’s performance. I tried not to have such high hopes because anytime I do, it always ends badly. There was Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns movie, which disappointed me faster than a speeding bullet. Then there was the remake of Dorian Gray starring the oh so handsome Ben Barnes that had me wanting to trade my soul for a new movie, and I can’t forget my first date with this kid we’ll just call Alfred that made me almost swear off men entirely. So yeah, I try not to have high expectations about very much of anything. But Clybourne Park and all it’s pedigree? I couldn’t help it.
Did it disappoint?
Well, let’s take a closer look at that.
Act One opens in the living room of 406 Clybourne Street. Russ and Bev, a long-time married couple, are in the midst of packing up their home. It’s 1959 and the costumes (styled by Suzanne Chesney) and the decor of the set (brought to vivid, beautiful life by scenic designer Michael Schweikardt, lighting designer John Lasiter, and production stage manager Fred Noel) clearly reflect that period. Throughout the brisk first half, Russ and Bev receive several people over, including a pastor of indeterminate religion (could be Lutheran, could be Catholic – he wasn’t wearing the dead giveaway of a Roman collar so who knows) and another married couple. The pastor Jim, played with earnestness by Jared McGuire, wants to talk to Russ about the tragedy that took place in his house a few years ago. The tragedy isn’t a huge secret, so I feel okay saying it here: Russ and Bev’s son, a Korean war vet, who had been accused of killing civilians, hung himself in his bedroom at Clybourne Street. It’s why Russ and Bev are so eager to get out of there. So eager, in fact, that they don’t give a flying flip who buys the house….even if the buyers are a family of color. Not everyone is so flip about it though. Mostly, Tim McGeever’s uptight, narrow-sighted Karl. (His beautiful deaf wife, played by Megan Hill, doesn’t really know what the heck is going on.) Karl is so righteous about maintaining the status quo of the neighborhood he actually has the nerve to ask Russ and Bev’s black maid Francine (played by a fiery Chandra Thomas) to basically agree that no black people ever be allowed on the hallowed ground that is Clybourne. Bjorn DuPatty plays Francine’s husband and let’s just say, he doesn’t exactly help matters
The first act is explosive and fast-paced. These people are an unholy heptagon. Lynne Wintersteller (best name ever, by the way) as Bev is all sharp angles and brittle anguish, barely concealed beneath a Mrs. Cleaver exterior. Bustling about, getting people iced tea….it’s her lifeline. She wants so badly to look on the bright side, to just stay positive and hope to god the feeling seeps into her husband. Brad Bellamy’s Russ though, is an old man set in his ways, preferring to not sugarcoat reality, but not really face it either. He’s in a pajama top for the first twenty minutes of the show. He talks of nothing real, and only when cornered, does a great and terrible fount of pain shoot from him, like a geyser of molten lava from a volcano. He’s supercharged and wonderful, well-deserving of the standing ovation he got at the end of the show. And Wintersteller brought the entire house to tears. I haven’t heard that many sniffles in the audience since I saw Toy Story 3, and that movie nearly killed me!!! Killed me, I say!!!! The end of act one was just as devastatingly heartbreaking. It doesn’t really end so much as fade away. There’s no clean cut resolution, no happy ever after, no tie up to loose threads. Like life, it just sort of is there, and only time will completely work itself out.
The program says that this show is for mature audiences. Trust that. BELIEVE that. The second act is not for the faint of heart. There’s jokes so dirty a pig wouldn’t roll in the mess. There’s pointed references and half-veiled racism. There’s screaming. Oh so much screaming. So much yelling. The actors from the first act are reincarnated here. Brad Bellamy is Dan the repair man. That explosive, wonderful energy from act one he displayed so effortlessly is kept under tight wraps here. Bjorn DuPatty and Chandra Thomas are no longer the servants of the house, but the owners named Lena and Kevin. They’re sleek, hip and stylish. The braids in Ms. Thomas’ hair were glory-to the IS. The vulnerable Wintersteller is now sharp attorney Kathy, the young pastor is now a real estate agent, and Megan Hill and Tim McGeever find themselves married once more, as couple Lindsey and Steve who are trying desperately to convince the black residents of Clybourne Street to let them demolish 406 and in it’s place, build a larger than acceptable house. Lena and Kevin don’t want them to do it. Lindsey and Steve don’t understand why. And it’s only about twenty minutes in that the gloves come off. What ensues is a heavy-weight fight with tons of jabs and shaking right hooks. These two young couples don’t pull any punches, and were it not for Ms. Wintersteller’s and Mr. Bellamy’s exceptional comedic relief, I would’ve found the second half nearly unbearable. Standing O, by the way, to Tim McGeever. He had the energy of a 14 year old boy and man, did he need it to run the gamut of his characters. He was awesome.
The difference between act one and two is that in act one, you felt that these people just could not get away from each other The writing was so intricately and intelligently set up, these characters were just slammed and stuck together. There was tons of conflict. The tension was palpable. And it was 1959 and segregation was still a dirty word to a lot of people and you just FELT the friction in the room. I felt like the core of act one was just stronger than two. Act two was greatly acted and incredibly written, but I felt like it wasn’t as tight, which is to say that I thought the ruby to the left was just a bit shinier than the diamond to the right. I mean, both acts were crown jewels. I’m probably nitpicking but I figure, it’s my job. 🙂
All in all, another winner by the Pittsburgh Public Theater. Director Pamela Berlin understood the many (dare I say) shades of gray (damn you EL James! I can no longer say that without thinking of you!!) of each character and each scene. She understood that this play wasn’t about a tidy conclusion, but about making a point, getting people talking, and shining a bold light on a time in history that was awful, and, unfortunately, still repeating itself, only in more insidious ways. Ms. Berlin wasn’t afraid to push her actors to the breaking point, getting them to scream so loud their voices would crack, making them so worked up they would cry. But that’s okay. Cause the audience was right there too. And for 406 Clybourne Street and all her ghosts, we cried with them.
Tickets are still available. For more information, go here.