Reviews (5)
‘Clybourne Park’ won’t let you stand on principle as you fall down laughing

Marty Hughley | The Oregonian [23 Apr 2013]

Principles are important. But you can’t live in a principle, you have to live in a house.

Some variation of that idea is expressed in both Act I and Act II of Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer-winning play “Clybourne Park,” which flips the script on the themes of race, real estate and social justice of the classic “A Raisin in the Sun”—first as an alternate view into the original 1959 story, then as a sequel set 50 years later. Part of Norris’ point is that the intersection of principle and practicality can be a confusing place, complicated by self-interest, group interest or even mortgage interest. There’s also the idea that territorialism is the principle that trumps all.

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But principle winds up taking a backseat to pleasure as we watch Chris Coleman’s clear-eyed, sharp-toothed production for Portland Center Stage, which draws blood and laughter in equal measures.

Balanced between the emotional authenticity of scrupulous naturalism (framed handsomely by Michael Olich’s sturdy scenic design) and the barbs of broad-brush satire, the acting flows with the nervous energy of barely suppressed fears and presumptions. Sharonlee McLean, in particular, shines as the bruised but naively hopeful housewife Bev, who serves as emotional barometer of Act I, and the no-nonsense lawyer Kathy, the dry comedic backstop of Act II.

The split narrative provides a chance for all the actors to show different sides. Gavin Hoffman, for instance, accents the fussy and supercilious in his portrayal of Karl, the 1950s homeowner’s-association heavy, then the flustered defensiveness of Steve, the (mostly) well-meaning modern white Everydude. As Russ, the grieving father in Act I, Sal Viscuso progresses from evasive to exasperated to volcanic; then as the chatty but largely ignored workingman in Act II, he’s easygoing and oblivious. Brianna Horne, one of the stars of “Oklahoma!” here in the fall of 2011, makes the most of restraint, first as a circumspect housekeeper, then as a well-heeled neighborhood activist skeptical of both the large and small forces advancing gentrification.

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Or does it fester like a sore?

Rebecca Jacobson | Willamette Week [23 Apr 2013]

Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park—the first work to win the triple crown of the Pulitzer, Tony and Britain’s Olivier—is one of the most produced plays among regional companies. I haven’t seen the play elsewhere, but I’m sure Portland Center Stage’s bracing production could contend with the best of them: Norris’ script is acerbic, smart and frequently uproarious, and the PCS cast, under director Chris Coleman, is superb. As in The Pain and the Itch, produced last year at Third Rail, Norris goes for the jugular. But unlike in that play, Clybourne’s characters retain shreds of likeability even while telling racist jokes and treading taboo waters. All told, it makes for a full-throttle experience that claws at our conceptions about race, prejudice and social propriety.

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The play’s title comes from Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 work A Raisin in the Sun, in which a black family prepares to move into a fictional, predominantly white Chicago neighborhood called Clybourne Park. Norris’ play also begins in 1959, but it centers instead on the white couple that have just sold their house. But ditzy Bev (the sparkling Sharonlee McLean) and brooding Russ (a tense and reactive Sal Viscuso) don’t know the new family is black, so community representative Karl (Gavin Hoffman, balancing dweebiness with impertinence) visits them in an attempt to halt the sale. The second act skips forward 50 years, with the bungalow fallen into disrepair—broken blinds, dirty molding, peeling wallpaper. In those intervening years, white flight has transformed the area’s demographics, and now a white couple hopes to move into the gentrifying area.

This parallel structure, with seven actors playing a different character in each act, is more than clever conceit. It’s a riveting dramatic framework that highlights the stubborn intractability of race issues in America, as well as our desperate fumbles to discuss them in a meaningful—or even intelligible—way. In the first act, we see the barefaced racism of Karl contrasted with the well-meaning condescension of Bev. A half century later, the characters are no more articulate, no less hamstrung by euphemisms and equivocations. “Half my friends are black!” yelps one character. When Lena (a taut Brianna Horne) brings up slavery, homebuyer Steve (Hoffman) throws himself on the floor, writhing and beating his fists as his face turns red. “We get it, OK?” he barks. “And we apologize. But what good does it do if we perpetually fall into the same, predictable little euphemistic tap dance around the topic?” It’s as corrosive as it is cathartic.

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Clybourne Park

Gigi Little | Ut Omnia Bene [23 Apr 2013]

Good theater should be a conversation starter. I’ve always loved the live experience of theater, the laughter of a full audience, the sets, the way actors bring life to a story—but I really love it when, after Stephen and I have enjoyed a play, we leave the theater in deep conversation over the themes and issues brought up. I’ve noticed lately that Portland Center Stage in particular seems to choose their plays with the aim of initiating a dialogue. In fact, after Friday night’s production of Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, we and the rest of the audience were invited to stay in the theater for a Q&A with some of the actors. And the same open dialogue is offered after almost every performance of the play down at the Gerding Theater. How cool is that?

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Those who stayed behind for the Q&A had plenty to talk about. The Pulitzer Prize winning Clybourne Park is that kind of play. It’s a re-imagining of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, told from the outside in. In A Raisin in the Sun, a black family buys a house in a Chicago neighborhood that happens to be predominantly white. In Clybourne Park, the same happens, but the family we meet is the white family, still in the process of selling their house but already packing and getting ready to leave. The action in the first half concerns the argument, at times hesitant, at times heated, between the family and members of the community over whether this sale to a black family should be allowed to go through. The second half takes us fifty years down the line to examine the subjects of prejudice and ownership from yet another angle. The Clybourne Park neighborhood has gone from predominantly white to predominantly black to that period of flux called gentrification, and this same house has been bought by a white family hoping to tear it down and build something bigger and grander in its place. The resulting debate slash battle, which includes the great niece / namesake of Lorraine Hansberry’s original Lena Younger character, highlights not only how incredibly difficult it is to kick prejudice out of our souls, but also how feeble and muddled our attempts to communicate about it usually are.

We talk around it. We talk over and under it. We’re afraid to offend and are afraid to find out just how deep our own prejudices might go. A question this play seems to ask is, what kind of racist are you? I’ll tell you the kind I am. Not necessarily the same kind as the character Lindsey (Kelley Curran) who, at one point, blurts, “Half my friends are black!” and at another, “I even dated a black guy!” - but similar. With me, there’s something inside that makes me automatically like a person more for being black, for being any minority. This is both an instinct and a half-conscious decision. For example, looking at the cast list, wanting to pull a couple standouts from the lineup to talk about in my little review here - which was a difficult task as every actor in this play was, to me, a standout - I found myself thinking first of Sharonlee McLean (white), who is both hysterical and heart-breaking in her roles, who perfectly exemplifies the overcompensation that I feel in my own reactions to race - but I found myself stopping and changing tack. I would talk about Sharonlee, yes, but first I would talk about Kevin R. Free (black), who in one of his roles portrays the affable Kevin with a beautiful just-below-the-surface pain and anger that the character doesn’t want to face. It’s a nuanced performance that gauges the way you feel as you watch the show - and, in a way, lets you know when you can be comfortable even in the midst of the rising tension - and when you can’t.

But you see what happened? I wanted to talk about both actors but, because he’s black, my brain wanted to put Kevin R. Free first.

Driving home with Stephen after the play, I tried to talk about this tendency of mine but kept falling all over my words. And I realized that I was doing what all the characters in Clybourne Park were doing throughout much of the show. Hedging and hesitating, being stymied by the weight of the topic. And that was one of the most fascinating things to me about the evening. Because beyond the heated subjects of prejudice and gentrification, Clybourne Park is a play about communication and the ways and reasons in which we avoid it.

I should also say that for a play with such serious and tension-filled subjects, it’s uproariously funny.  Even as I was deep in thought over all the issues that arose during the production, I was laughing my head off. Clybourne Park is a top-notch play with sharp, wonderful writing, and Portland Center Stage made beautiful work of it.

It’s playing now through May 5th at the Gerding Theater in the (quite gentrified) Pearl district.

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Portland Center Stage’s production of the Pulitzer-winning play gleefully dives into the taboo

Aaron Scott | Portland Monthly [16 Apr 2013]

What do white women and tampons have in common? Do black men ski? These aren’t the sorts of things decent folks are supposed to talk about—and certainly not in public. But they’re the smoldering social issues that fuel Bruce Norris’s blistering Clybourne Park. The Pulitzer-winner play so gleefully dramatizes the taboo topics that make people uncomfortable—race, suicide, privilege—that the result of Portland Center Stage’s fabulous production is a shared exorcism of sorts, with laughter as our holy ghost.

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The story opens on a 1950s couple packing to move to the suburbs from their home in the mostly German and Irish neighborhood of Clybourne Park. When a neighbor tries to talk them out of selling by revealing that the buyers are an African American family—the very family in Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun—prejudices and tempers flare, pulling the community priest, the African American maid, and her husband into a cavalcade of increasingly hilarious discomfort.

Act two, set in contemporary times, sees the neighborhood on the brink of another transition. A young white couple has just bought the house and is confronted by an African American couple from the neighborhood association who wants to stress the importance of honoring the history of what has been a black neighborhood since the white flight of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Of course, tempers and prejudices flare, pulling both sides and their lawyers into a deliciously discomfiting and hilarious escalation of racist jokes.

Norris’s script is so smart, nimble, and ferociously funny that it’s easy to see why it won a Pulitzer, a Tony, and an Olivier (London’s Tony). As in his play The Pain and the Itch, which Third Rail Rep mounted in 2011, dialogue unfolds like a war: multiple skirmishes take place at once, as characters’ overlapping conversations collide and align in the most amusing and often illustrative ways. And beautifully mirrored parallels in both acts work to emphasize the continuity of history while also dismantling its stereotypes, from the persisting obsession over five-minute commutes (although the place of work has changed) to the role of skiing, that powdered pinnacle of privilege, which switches from being used in the first act by the racist neighbor to illustrate that whites and blacks just live differently—“skiing doesn’t appeal to negroes”—to being an activity in the second act that now only appeals to the African American characters.

Portland Center Stage outdoes itself with a production that is shining Broadway-excellence across the board (if Sweeney Todd hadn’t been so devilishly good, I’d have no qualms saying this is the best big production of the season). Chris Coleman’s direction is as sharp as the dialogue, moving characters through what amounts to two extended single scenes with economy and zest while using stylized blocking details to capture the spirits of the times (the stretching by the female lawyer at the start of act two elicited particular guffaws). Without exception, the ensemble cast of locals and visiting artists—Kelley Curran, Kevin Free, Andy Lee-Hillstrom, Gavin Hoffman, Brianna Horne, Sharonlee Mclean, and Sal Viscuso—is fantastic. Curran’s portrayal of a deaf woman in the first act (another drop in the cascade of provocative choices by Norris) was so genuine that one audience member who works with deaf students said during the talk back that she believed Curran was a deaf actor.

Of course, the house itself is the silent central character, and scenic designer Michael Olich does a magnificent job of transforming it during intermission from a sparkling ‘50s home to a battered, abandoned abode (read our story about how he creates the change).

Clybourne Park is a story that could be set in North and Northeast Portland with little more than a change of name, and it flays Portland liberalism accordingly. The white characters in act two are veritable stand-ins for many of the young, white homebuyers who swept through Alberta, Mississippi, and the city’s other African American neighborhoods, ultimately resulting in the displacement of 10,000 African American residents. Echoing conversations you might hear any day of the week at the Mississippi food cart pod, the white husband and wife talk and talk, going on ad nauseam about how the system dehumanizes and abandons African Americans, but then seem completely (and rather willfully) blind to their own participation in the process. After all, they love the neighborhood now—once they stopped seeing it as it “used to be” and overlook the floundering schools—and they’re only talking about one house.

But the play isn’t a guilt trip—at least, not exclusively. By lacing conflict through the married couples as well as between them, it allows us to step together into that scary area that most of us are squeamish to discuss, and to engage in that conversation that is, consequently, direly needed in this whitest-of-all major American city. And most importantly, Clybourne Park injects the existential and very un-PC humor that’s embedded in the angst of these conversations to show that, perhaps if we stop pussyfooting around, we might actually get somewhere. Or as one character puts it, “Maybe we should all learn what the other eats.”

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Big fights, little fights, all around the town

Bob Hicks | Oregon ArtsWatch [15 Apr 2013]

As the lights dropped Friday night and the crowd leapt to its feet at the end of Portland Center Stage’s rousing opening-night performance of “Clybourne Park” it seemed not really an ending at all, just a quick pause before the next chapter in a continuing saga. And oddly, that felt good. The play’s two acts are set 50 years apart, with a lot of surface progress but the same old bugaboos of race and privilege lurking in the background, and if the ending feels a bit un-finalized, that’s really only a reflection of the reality behind the story. Things begin and end for specific characters, but the conditions under which they live their lives just keep rolling along. It’s not a bad thing at all to walk out of a theater thinking, “I wonder what happens next?”

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In a way, that question is what “Clybourne Park” is all about. Written by Chicago actor/playwright Bruce Norris, it’s become a huge hit since it opened three years ago at Playwrights Horizons in New York. It won a Pulitzer in 2011 and followed with the Tony Award for best play in 2012. The big “what next?” in Norris’s play arises from the ending of Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark 1959 drama “A Raisin in the Sun,” when Lena Younger, a housemaid and the core of a struggling black family on Chicago’s South Side, decides to spend a small insurance settlement to make a down payment on a house in a nicer neighborhood – Clybourne Park, which has no black families.

Norris flips “Raisin” on its edge and begins “Clybourne Park” in the house where Lena is about to move, a rambling family home now cluttered with boxes for the previous family’s move to the suburbs. And he dips right into the other side of the story: What Lena sees as opportunity, the all-white residents of her new neighborhood see as a threat. The neighborhood association tries to buy Lena out at a higher price. Friendships break up. And the trickle of white flight to the suburbs is soon to become a stampede, leaving tumbling real-estate prices and a shift of Clybourne Park from an all-white to a mostly black neighborhood. Fifty years later, in Act Two, the tables are turned again. A young white couple have bought the old house, planning to tear it down and build an oversized replacement. This time, the black neighbors have concerns. Gentrification has begun.

Whew. Got all that setup? It’s much easier to follow on the stage, where director Chris Coleman’s assured and cracklingly paced production seduces you with alternating laughter and sorrow. For all of its contentious subject matter, “Clybourne Park” moves with a swift and entertaining energy, and Coleman’s production, which is impeccably designed and beautifully cast, works it to the max. With this production Center Stage does precisely what a flagship theater company is supposed to do. It takes an interesting play and gives it a top-notch professional production that brings out its nuances. It delights the crowd from moment to moment, and gives it something important to think about afterwards. And it sets a high standard not just for audiences, but also for other companies in town.

If I find the first act of what’s essentially two linked short plays more involving, it may be because of the remarkable performances by Sal Viscuso as the morose businessman who’s selling the house and Sharonlee McLean as his stay-at-home wife. Something horrible has happened in the house involving their war-veteran son, and Viscuso is absolutely compelling as Russ, a man who’s gone quietly bitter, and caustically hilarious, on the world. He lives a step to the side of things, observing and judging, buried in pain, and it’s astonishing to see him gradually grow in what might be moral stature, or simply disgust over awkward attempts to manipulate him, as the people around him reveal their baser intentions. McLean is a gifted comedian, as she displays amply in the role of a wisecracking lawyer in the second act, and she has some wonderful ditzy moments as Russ’s not-so-bright wife Bev, too. But gradually we realize that even if she can misread situations astonishingly, especially in relating to her longtime African-American maid, Bev has more empathy and emotional wisdom than anyone around her. Her fragility and determined optimism, which McLean reveals with extraordinary vulnerability, go together as a way of dealing with an impossible situation. The supporting roles are beautifully played, too: Brianna Horne as Bev’s eternally cautious and necessarily diplomatic maid, Francine, and Kevin R. Free as Albert, Francine’s sometimes overly helpful husband; Andy Lee-Hillstrom as a fatuous and comically ineffective clergyman; Gavin Hoffman, who is strikingly good as Karl, the glad-handing neighborhood activist (and a bit character in Hansberry’s “Raisin”) who’s appalled by the sale of the house to a black family and leads the protest against it; and Kelley Curran as Karl’s pregnant and deaf wife, Betsy, who doesn’t quite understand what’s going on around her. The switchbacks in belief and motivation among this provocative cast of characters are as endless as the country’s complex and contradictory beliefs and actions about race and privilege, and no one here is entirely wrong or entirely right. For all its compensating humor this first act contains a series of smaller and larger personal tragedies, and an economic and cultural shift that echoes down the decades.

Viscuso and McLean recede toward the background in the second act, which is set in a more run-down version of the first act’s interior (the handsomely playable design is by the savvy vet Michael Olich; costumes are by resident designer Jeff Cone). Coming to the fore are the clashing couples played by Hoffman and Curran (the newbie white owners) and Horne and Free (the neighborhood old guard). Curran is once again pregnant but this time not deaf, and her intentions are both innocent and good: she wants to love this place. Free is once again genial, but with a sharp sense of irony and a line that won’t be crossed; and Horne adeptly maintains a steadily simmering anger beneath a veneer of almost courtly patience. Hoffman once again plays the blunt force who brings race into the open while the others tiptoe around it, and once again does so without coming across as entirely a villain. He is, from his perspective, simply a realist. Norris gets impressive mileage out of a series of crude jokes – racial, sexual, you name it – that zip across the stage and heighten the tension among the characters even as they release the tension in the audience.

What’s going to happen after the final blowup? Who knows? Norris doesn’t answer the questions he raises, and it’s really not the play’s job to do so. It’s enough to set the questions in motion. Why does power always seem to tilt to white people? What’s good and what’s bad about gentrification? What’s the line between social cohesion and a free and open society? When is race the most important card on the table, and how does it play when the deck is stacked economically? When does a corrosive social outcome outweigh a good personal decision? Are we ever going to get this race thing right? “Clybourne Park” is only the latest chapter in Center Stage’s continuing examination of race in America, an exploration that’s included, among others, its African-American version of “Oklahoma!,” “Black Pearl Sings,” and the recently completed “The Whipping Man.” It’s a never-ending story.

And what happens next?

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