Clybourne Park, SpeakEasy Stage Company, Roberts Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through March 30. 617-933-8600 or bostontheatrescene.com
Location, location, location. Is property a barometer for racism? Property discrimination certainly proved a major focus for black dramatist Lorraine Hansberry in her 1959 New York Drama Critics Award-winning drama “A Raisin in the Sun.” Such land racism has also figured prominently in white playwright Bruce Norris’ 2011 Pulitzer Prize and 2012 Tony Award-winning play “Clybourne Park.”
Considering that “Raisin” inspired “Clybourne,” it is not surprising that Karl Lindner-the ringleader of community discrimination in Hansberry’s play- resurfaces in Norris.’ Now the Hub has the special chance to see whether and how that discrimination has evolved—with Huntington Theatre Company about to begin a revival of “Raisin”(March 8-April 7) and SpeakEasy Stage Company presenting the Boston area premiere of ‘Clybourne’ (through March 30). Thanks to M. Bevin O’Gara’s strong direction, SpeakEasy is crisply closing the deal on “Clybourne Park” at the Calderwood.
Attending that ‘closing’ Sunday was the playwright himself. At a post-performance talkback, Norris admitted that he grew up in “an incredibly segregated neighborhood.” He went on to observe , “In a sense we (the white neighbors) were Karl Lindner.” While Lindner tries unsuccessfully to stop the black Younger family from buying a home in a white Chicago community in “Raisin,” he meets with the same results attempting to persuade a white homeowner to retract the sale of his property to a black family in the 1959-set first act of “Clybourne Park.” At that time wife Betsy is pregnant. Fifty years later—in the second act, the Lindners’ progressive daughter Kathy is participating in an alternately calm and heated meeting about the property now that a young white couple encounters questions about the historical identity of the home. At this point subtler questions about race intersect with concerns about the height and the status of the property.
Kathy—like Norris himself—does not share her father’s attitude about black homeowners-nor do the other discussants-several of whom also have family connections to the characters in the first act. Here, the discrimination often comes across in jokes containing stereotypes about blacks, gays, Jews and a variety of ethnic groups. The most insinuating concern—that of a black couple named Lena and Kevin- involves the possibility that the historical identity of the neighborhood-which now has an important black component—could be jeopardized through gentrification. Intriguingly, Lena repeatedly encounters a subtle insensitivity as white attendees ask her to hold her points until other participants return from phone calls or questions from a construction worker named Dan.
Norris skillfully establishes equivalencies between the conflicts in the very different two acts. In both acts, details about locations- Naples and Brussels, for example , in the first, and Rabat, Morocco and Prague in the second, become unusual metaphors for the importance of all people finding a place to call home. Also in both, black characters can seem marginalized—patronized Francine, who works for white homeowners Bev and Russ ,and her husband Albert in the first act, and Lena and Kevin—sometimes addressed too cheerily- in the second. What happened to Bev and Russ’ Korea veteran son takes on pivotal significance in the second act as his footlocker—brought downstairs for burial at the backyard great myrtle tree in the first act-is discovered and finally opened by the construction worker at the end of the second. Some audience members, this critic included, may feel that the tension between meeting participants in the 2009 second act need more of the climactic power of the first-where Russ bluntly sends Lindner and even overly diplomatic minister Jim out of his house. Still, “Clybourne Park” is a well-constructed and thoughtful play that will provoke theatergoers to meaningful discussion about race, property and human connection and Norris’ timely insights about them.
Director O’ Gara has done well with the cast’s challenging acting demands as they effectively play very different characters in each act. Paula Plum catches Bev’s relative naivete and Kathy’s savvy-especially in some rapid-fire quips. Thomas Derrah builds Russ’ seething anger towards Lindner and Jim about the community’s insensitivity to his son and displays the right nonchalance as construction worker Dan. Marvelyn McFarlane’s reserved but wise Francine and rightly outspoken Lena are right on target, as are DeLance Minefee’s genial Albert and perceptive Kevin. Philana Mia has her moments as hearing challenged Betsy and strong stretches as new owner Lindsey. Michael Kaye finds all of Lindner’s venom and Lindsey’s husband Steve’s relative obtuseness. Most impressive is Tim Spears as disturbingly diplomatic Jim, frustrated gay meeting coordinator Tom and a striking stage visitor who materializes as the construction worker reads the Korea veteran’s footlocker letter.
Christina Todesco deserves a special nod for a beam-rich and wonderfully detailed home set in the first act that smoothly becomes the sparer second act location. As with the New York set (there is a smartly employed side area) here a window seat where characters by turns find a haven from discomfort or experience a kind of marginalization from the main exchanges.
At a telling moment, Bev offers the hope that “things are about to change for the better.” Audience members may differ about her optimism and how much better America is doing about race, diversity and understanding. There should be no doubt about SpeakEasy’s impeccably appointed “Clybourne Park.”
The young high energy company Heart and Dagger Productions is exploring a wide range of human relationships in “Such Times,” its “1st Annual Sex Fest.” As with many anthologies of short plays-generally 10 minutes or less in length, the results are very uneven. While young directors such as Elise Weiner Wulff, Devin Scalisi and Mikey DiLoreto demonstrate real talent, many of the plays lack real endings or suffer from familiar dialogue. Still, for theatergoers willing to check out new material, there are some real rewards.
The best play , “Playing Checkers” by Cassie M. Seinuk,” packs an emotional punch as a cautionary tale about incest with a satisfying twist and strong performances by Melissa De Jesus and Chuong Pham. Elise Weiner Wulff displays poetic dance moves in “Under the Upper Hand”by Mary ElizaBeth Peters. Noah Tobin has the right flamboyance as a gay actor in Craig Houk’s one-actor play “PornSTAR.” Mike Budwey and Joey C. Pelletier elicit consistent well-earned laughs respectively as an ostensibly straight man and his gay counterpart in “What Men Do Alone on Islands” by actor Grant MacDermott.