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Review: Clybourne Park at Center REP a provocative stunner

By Pat Craig
Correspondent

Posted:   February 5, 2014

It begins, as so much entertainment in the '50s did, as a frothy sitcom, featuring fizzy characters willing to give their all to see that everybody lives happily ever after, because it is 1959, and despite:

 

  • The messy suicide of Kenneth (Timothy Redmond), who was Russ (Richard Howard) and Bev's (Lynda DiVito) son.
  • Russ's teetering on the verge of a nervous breakdown because the pain of Kenneth's death hasn't abated even after several years.
  • The fact they have unknowingly sold their home in Clybourne Park (yes, the same fictional neighborhood in "A Raisin in the Sun") to a black family.

And that's where the reality hits the fan in this stunning Center REP production of this provocative 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winner. And yet, we find ourselves laughing throughout the show, cringing at the same time.

There is nothing frothy about the second half of the first act, in fact it's much closer to rabid than frothy as neighborhood leader Karl (Craig Marker) visits the sold home with his wife, the deaf and very pregnant Betsy (Kendra Lee Oberhauser), to try to prevent an even unwitting bit of so-called "blockbusting" from taking place.

It is a hugely ugly sequence that makes contemporary audience members squirm, taking heart in only the fact in that in the 50 years since then the world is a much better, kinder, gentler and more tolerant place. Still, it's difficult to see the "Leave It to Beaver" world explode as violently as a firecracker held too long.

But then it's intermission, we buy some ice cream and talk about what we've just seen. Then we exchange smiles, ready for the second act, set in 2009, a year before the play made its debut.

It should be interesting to see, we note, what a half-century of evolution has done. And sure enough, the seven characters in Act Two have some similarities -- there are two couples, one of the women is pregnant -- to those they played in Act One. And it's clear they grew up in a very different world.

They are more sophisticated -- there are now two lawyers in the room as Clybourne Park neighbors discuss what sort of renovations can be may be made by Steve and Lindsey (Marker and Oberhauser) when they move to Clybourne Park as one of the few white families and remodel the old home of Russ and Bev. And everyone's a global traveler. The discussion is broken up with comments on the various places they've vacationed and the various types of food they've eaten.

But, have they really changed all that much?

That remains to be seen as the show moves deeper into the second act, and the long history of Clybourne Park visits the old community again, for better or worse, exploring issues of race, class and gender roles -- political correctness be damned -- in exchanges that are at times brutally sharp.

The show is compellingly performed by this talented and skillful cast, directed by Center REP Artistic Director Michael Butler, who has filled the show with effective details throughout.

J.B. Wilson has designed a set that covers the half century of passing time and fortune in one house, beginning in Act One, with a classic two-story Midwestern tract home, that, over the years, shows its years and hard wear through the changing of flats and set pieces designed around the home's bones to show how it has fallen on hard times.

Elizabeth Poindexter has designed some wonderfully effective costumes, making them look real for both eras of the production — the contemporary costumes are familiar and comfortable, and the '50s costumes reflect the era without falling prey to the stereotypical look of what has begun to pass as '50s style.

 

Center REP's Clybourne Park offers humor, serious topical issues

By Jan Miller

Posted:   February 7, 2014

Winner of the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play as well as the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, “Clybourne Park” spans two generations fifty years apart. In 1959, Russ (Richard Howard) and Bev (Lynda DiVito) are selling their desirable two-bedroom at a bargain price, unknowingly bringing the first black family into the neighborhood (borrowing a plot line from Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun”) and creating ripples of discontent among the cozy white residents of Clybourne Park. In 2009, the same property is being bought by a young white couple, whose plan to raze the house and rebuild is met with equal disapproval by the black residents of the soon-to-be-gentrified area. Are the issues festering beneath the floorboards actually the same, fifty years later? Bruce Norris’s humorous satire explores the fault line between race and property.

Center REP’s production of “Clybourne Park,” directed by Michael Butler, hits home on many fronts. Jokes fly and hidden agendas unfold as two vastly different generations of characters tip-toe the delicate dance of social politics. Two events – 50 years apart – are at the crux of the conflict in the same North Chicago house. This rich and lightning-quick comedy is every bit as provocative as it is entertaining. 

The seven-person ensemble cast, featuring Velina Brown (Francine/Lena), Adrian N. Roberts (Albert/Kevin), Craig Marker (Karl/Steve), Kendra Lee Oberhauser (Betsy/Lindsey), Timothy Redmond (Jim/Tom/Kevin), as well as the aforementioned Richard Howard and Lynda DiVito, is fantastic as each plays multiple roles. 

The sets (each a half-century apart) are authentic and even before the production begins a radio in the background plays 50s music interspersed with ads plugging Pepsodent (“You’ll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent”) and Alka Seltzer (“Plop, plop, fizz,fizz, oh, what a relief it is!”) that really puts the audience in a time-warp, taking everyone back to the 50s. Then the curtain rises, the actors come on stage in their 50s attire, and the audience is immediately taken back in time.

Performances for “Clybourne Park,” at the Lesher Theatre in Walnut Creek, CA., run through Saturday, March 1. For more information go to CenterREP.org or call 925.943.SHOW 

 

My Cultural Landscape: Boys in the Attic

By George Heymont

Posted:   February 10, 2014

In 2011, when American Conservatory Theater presented the West Coast premiere of Clybourne Park, much of the attention focused on the piece of real estate which sits at the core of Bruce Norris's dramedy. Inspired by Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 hit, A Raisin in the Sun, the play's two acts are separated by 50 years but take place in the same living room.

Directed by Michael Butler, Center Rep's new production of Clybourne Park offers Bay area audiences a second chance to examine the effects of racism, gentrification, and generational shifts as depicted by the award-winning playwright.

The first act takes place in 1959, in the home of Russ (Richard Howard) and Bev (Lynda DiVito), an aggrieved middle-aged couple -- living in an all-white suburb of Chicago -- whose son hung himself in his bedroom after returning home from the Korean War. The couple has struggled to cope with the lack of support Kenneth (Timothy Redmond) received from a community in which no one would hire a veteran who confessed to having killed people during his wartime service. Nor has Russ been able to tolerate the idiotic platitudes he keeps hearing from their affable but useless priest.

Much of the drama in Act I revolves around the revelation that the couple has sold their home to the Youngers, an African American family. One of their acquaintances from the neighborhood association, Karl Lindner (Craig Marker), is a clueless racist with a deaf and very pregnant wife (Kendra Lee Oberhauser).  Karl attempts to question Bev's maid, Francine (Velina Brown) and her husband, Albert (Adrian N. Roberts) about whether they would feel out of place moving into an all-white neighborhood.

The second act takes place 50 years later, as another wave of gentrification is threatening Clybourne Park. This time, the clueless Steve (Craig Marker) and his pregnant wife Lindsey (Kendra Lee Oberhauser) want to make physical alterations to the home they've just purchased. However, Lena Younger's great granddaughter (Velina Brown) -- who has been named after the domestic worker who purchased the house in Act I -- worries about how their architectural plans will change the face of the neighborhood.

I always find it fascinating to see how second or third viewings of a drama can change one's perceptions of the piece. When I first saw Clybourne Park, one of the key impressions was how much trivia people were obsessed with knowing despite the fact that it left them clueless about the larger picture ("If you're so smart, how come you're so stupid?").

Seeing the play again in Walnut Creek left a different impression, largely because of Craig Marker's powerful portrayals of two clueless, arrogant fools whose assumption of white male privilege prevents them from having the good sense to shut their stupid mouths before making a bad situation worse. With the second act set in 2009 (with cell phones being used by most of the characters), it quickly becomes obvious that not one of these people is capable or interested in listening to anyone else's issues. Gentrification has come loaded with the rampant narcissism and the bloated sense of self-importance the Gen-X and Gen-Y crowds bring to the table.

When Lena mentions that the reason that her great grandmother was able to purchase the home at less than market value might have been the circumstances surrounding Kenneth's death, Lindsey freaks out at the thought of raising a child in a house where someone committed suicide (even if the traumatic event happened 50 years ago).

While Norris's script gives audiences plenty of food for thought with regard to racism and gentrification, Kenneth's suicide claims center stage during the play's poignant final moments as a plumber (Richard Howard) forces open a foot locker containing Kenneth's belongings that Russ and Bev had buried under the crape myrtle tree in the back yard before moving to their new home.

Because Clybourne Park double casts actors as characters separated by five decades, it requires some strong ensemble work in order for both sets of characters to shine. Lynda DiVito had some strong moments as the vulnerable Bev in Act I which contrasted with her tough real estate attorney in Act II. Richard Howard delivered two widely disparate characters: the grieving Russ in Act I and the loudmouth plumber in Act II.

Adrian N. Roberts had some delicious moments as Albert (Act I) and Kevin (Act II) with Velina Brown appearing as his two wives. Although Kendra Lee Oberhauser handled two different pregnancies with comic flair, Timothy Redmond was the only member of the cast to appear in three roles (as the friendly priest in 1959, as a gay member of the neighborhood association in 2009, and as the ghost of the suicidal Kenneth).

Clybourne Park

By Charles Jarrett


In Center REPertory Company's production of Clybourne Park, playing at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek through March 1, the first half of the "Arcadia-like story" begins in 1959. A grieving family is selling their home due in large part to an unfortunate event that took place in the home in the recent past.

This home is located in a beautiful North Chicago suburb called "Clybourne Park." Unbeknownst to the owners, their Realtor has concluded the sale of the house with a black couple. Bev and Russ, the owners of the home, are packing their belongings, preparing for a move that is to occur in two days, when they are visited by their clergyman and a neighbor, informing them that they have discovered that they have sold their house to a black couple (in fact, the same couple featured in A Raisin in the Sun). They try to talk them into backing out of the sale. Their concerns are that the property values will fall if black families move into the neighborhood. Sterotypical racial slurs and prejudices flow like lava until Russ erupts and cast them all out of the house.

The second act occurs in the same house 50 years later when a white couple wants to buy the house that has apparently been abandoned for several years, showing signs of vandalism thorughout. The home is now in a predominately black neighborhood where gentrification is beginning to occur. Yes, the feared transition from predominantly white neighborhood did occur, and now, the white couple planning to purchase the home has to meet with a black couple representing a home heritage preservation group that has been established by the community to keep the quaint and rustic neighborhood intact. The white couple has to come to grips with their own anxieties, feeling that reverse discrimination and prejudice are coloring their attempts to modernize the home. Once again, racial issues color the landscape in Clybourne Park.

The same actors cross-portray all the characters in both time periods and the story written by Bruce Norris resonates and regurgitates nasty memories these same type of fears that I remember from my childhood in 1954 in Las Vegas. Director Michael Butler has selected an excellent cast with Lynda DiVito, Richard Howard, Velina Brown, Timothy Redmond, Adrian N. Roberts, Craig Marker and Kendra Lee Oberhauser all delivering absolutely stunning performances.

This is a powerful production that really makes us look at the painful consequences of our fears of integration and racism. And yet, this story is also overflowing with clever humor, showing off the absurdity of our ingrained prejudices.

Clybourne Park is a must-see riveting play.

 

Center REP's Clybourne Park scintillating and effective

By David John Chavez

February 27, 2014

Steve has a joke. That joke's ability for laughter all depends on who is in the room.

For example, if there are black people in the room, the joke might not go over very well. After all, it is a joke about black people. But if there are no black people in the room, why it just might be comic gold.

The discomfort and blatant hypocrisy just described is palpable truth in Bruce Norris’ exquisite “Clybourne Park,” with a wonderful production at Center REP in Walnut Creek. The play, Norris’ pièce de résistance that garnered him the Pulitzer Prize in 2011, connects to another legendary piece, Lorraine Hansberry’s “Raisin in the Sun.” Issues we as a society grapple with today when it comes to race and race relations are front and center in many explosive and downright cringe-worthy scenes.

The play takes place in two acts, the first in 1959 and the second in 2009, with the first act taking place just after Karl Lindner (Craig Marker), the subtle bigot who attempts to buy the Younger’s new house in “Raisin,” comes from his infamous meeting with the Younger family.  His concern has to do with having a “colored” family buy the home of Russ (Richard Howard) and Bev (Lynda DiVito) in their all-white neighborhood. Certainly in Karl’s mind, having a black family will potentially drive down property values and compromise the safety of his wife Betsy (Kendra Lee Oberhauser) and the unborn child she is carrying. Since he is not getting much in the way of cooperation from Russ and Bev, secrets of the house are used against them as veiled threats.

Fast forward a half-century, and now the home that the Youngers lived in all those years is in a bad way. No longer does freshly pressed wallpaper adorn the walls. Now it is nice droplets of graffiti. Clybourne Park has become a predominantly black neighborhood, and now Steve and Lindsey (Marker and Oberhauser) are ready to do some renovating of their own. Ugliness takes over in a mostly powerful act two, save for a confusing and sometimes tedious exposition early on.

p>This is where these moments become uncomfortable, but in the most effective way. What is most effective about Norris’ script is in its parallels. Characters in act one go around trying so hard not to be sensitive to cultures they know very little about, but come off so poorly as a result. While act one hangs its hat on milquetoast dialogue plucked directly from the Donna Reed show, it is fascinating to see how little things have changed 50 years later in act two in the way the characters communicate.

One thing that is striking about the words is that no one ever seems to talk directly to anyone. Saying the characters are beating around the bush in this play is about as accurate as saying Joey Chestnut is a good little eater. These people beat around forests. Lindner is especially good at this, often speaking about black people as if they are not even in the room. Unfortunately, the dignified maid Francine (Velina Brown) and her husband Albert (Adrian Roberts), often stand stoically having to listen to Lindner spew his uninformed dreck.

Norris’ script is highly skilled, a beautifully crafted tour-de-force that does many good things. I have seen two of his works produced by Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, “Purple Heart” and “We all Went Down to Amsterdam.” While those plays had a forcefully quirky quality to them, this piece showcases Norris’ high degree of difficulty, which is forgiving to the other flaws that exist in the script. With wonderful direction from artistic director Michael Butler of the phenomenal performers that make up the seven-member ensemble cast, sharp set design by J.B. Wilson and an effective costume plot by Elizabeth Poindexter, the production cohered sharply.

The play’s denouement is certainly the most haunting and effective component, reminiscent of a histrionic ending often seen in works by Labute or Ibsen.  While characters throughout the play make lots of noise, it’s not the noise that is important. Our blood, our desires, our tears and our dreams are shared with our fellow man. If we listened more and talked less, we may be better off.

Or as Bev says dreamily, “Maybe we should learn what the other person eats. Maybe that would be the solution to some of the – If some day we could all sit down together, at one big table, and, and, and…”