Have you ever had this experience? A play finishes its first act, and as the house lights come up for intermission, you think, “that act was so polished and well-constructed that it could stand by itself; I could go home now and be happy.” That’s how we felt at the act break for Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, an dark comedy that responds to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun by telling the story of the Chicago house to which Hansberry’s Younger family aspires. Norris’s play probes the relations between America’s classes and races in the second half of the past century, relations where so much hangs on the nuanced meanings of the phrase, “thank you, but no.”
The first act, set in 1959, introduces us to the Arts and Crafts-influenced house, home to Russ and Bev (company bulwarks Mitchell Hébert and Jennifer Mendenhall). Russ is not immune to the charms of the National Geographic Society’s magazine and neapolitan ice cream eaten from the carton. The meticulous production design is realized by Properties Master Jennifer Sheetz and other Woolly Mammoth production staff. Russ and Bev are ready for the jump to the suburbs, and they have (unintentionally?) sold their home to a black family. It’s up to neighborhood association rep and general pain in the ass Karl Lindner (the exceptional Cody Nickell) to spell things out to them.
After the break, it’s now 2009, and the house has seen a lot of living. Lindsey (Kimberly Gilbert) and Steve (Nickell, again), a young white couple, have bought the house from the (unnamed) Youngers, and hope to build a new, architecturally engaging yet tasteful (?), home on the site. Another confrontation with neighborhood association reps ensues, this time sparked by Lena (the astonishing Dawn Ursula), who wants her family’s urban homesteading to be respectfully remembered. While Nickell’s Steve proceeds to offend everyone in the room (was there ever a man so gormless that he didn’t know to stop talking?), Ursula’s Lena delivers zingers serenely, sweetly. She’s a stealth bomber of black comedy.
By my reckoning, the play’s third act comes at intermission, when the stage crew tear down Russ and Bev’s cozy home and transform it into Steve and Lindsey’s work site. Velcro is a stage carpenter’s best friend.
- Clybourne Park, by Bruce Norris, directed by Howard Shalwitz, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington