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September 17, 2012 | by  | in Arts Theatre |
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Review – Clybourne Park

By Bruce Norris, directed by Ross Jolly

Clybourne Park is a play of two halves which enacts a game of verbal dodge-ball around the issue of racism in America. Part one takes place in 1959, where the white middle-class sits comfortably in the protective ideology of “separate-but-equal”, and Jim Crow laws provide the basis for self-aggrandising, institutionalised discrimination.

Part two jumps forward fifty years to an enlightened, post-civil-rights-movement 2009. The arena for both acts is a house
in Clybourne Road, Chicago. In part one the property has just been sold by the resident nuclear family, and in part two has just been bought by a nuclear family-to-be. In the intervening time the estate (and neighbourhood) has been occupied by black Americans, and the value of the property has diminished (the play, not me, makes the link here, though the issue is complicated and treated from multiple perspectives). Seven actors play fourteen characters, one for each act, with the exception of Paul Waggot, who plays three. As such, the production is bolstered by a significant metafiction: the same actors repeat lines that were heard in the previous act, though from different characters, highlighting the changes or similarities in prejudices. Essentially when it comes to racism, says Clybourne Park, a lot has changed and not much has changed.

There is a lot of fun to be had here. The star of the first act is Gavin Rutherford as Russ, father to a dead son, who hides his depression under a thick layer of grump which grates the other characters and delights the audience. Russ is a pressure cooker bound to blow, and gets a snigger from the eagerly waiting audience every time he walks on stage—a testament to Rutherford’s characterization and timing. The stakes increase as the stage becomes populated with more characters, each representing a certain brand of prejudice, from blatant racism to patronising orientalism. The tension is pushed into the red with the arrival of Karl (Andrew Foster), a member of the Rotary club, who has taken issue with the colour of the property’s buyers.

The production’s achievement here is that no character is pure, but all are likeable (or, at least, we enjoy laughing at them). While Russ is no saint, we trust that his own, selfish motivations will push the conflict to land on the “right” side of the moral spectrum, and so we applaud his apolitical, disinterested rampage. Of course, in the aftermath you are left to wonder at how the production got you so-on side with such moral ambiguity.

There were times, though, that I was laughing at what I knew the comedy was supposed to be, rather than what it actually was. The act one climax doesn’t quite deliver on its promise, perhaps because some of the acting appears pre-packaged, which could be a symptom of either over- or under-rehearsal. But it’s early days yet, and we can hope that the actors will get more playful as they become more familiar with the material.The second act proves more successful, performance-wise, this time with Andrew Foster in the role of time-bomb as everyman Steve, purchaser of the house with wife Lindsey (Danielle Mason). Here, racism is shown to be alive and well, though masked by layer upon layer of politically sanctioned terminology, politeness, and neutralising periphrases. The joy here is that the dialogue—painfully stilted by naïve attempts at political correctness—is so agonisingly familiar. Again, Steve is no saint, but we urge him to drive the tension to snapping point by telling that joke, by labelling the thing that no one dares say, by risking his honour and expressing the thing that everyone’s thinking. For this reviewer (who hails from Christchurch) the verisimilitude was uncanny. In the first act we are lulled into a false sense of security; we can point our finger and laugh at characters from which we are separated by fifty years of enlightened thinking. Then the tables turn, and the play points the finger at us, with good humour, but with striking accuracy.

As social satire, Clybourne Park operates flawlessly. But the presence of a tragic backstory—that of Russ’ son—alluded to throughout the play and capitalised on at the end, suggests that it is striving for something more. It adds variety and shade to what would otherwise be a straight-forward satire, but I failed to connect fully with it. For me, it muddies the waters, and points to a deeper message that isn’t really there. The critics on the continent(s) have certainly viewed it as having something more, but where they see “Best Play” I see “good comedy”. At its heart, Clybourne Park is a traditional comedy of manners, exceptionally well-constructed and commendably performed.

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