What's the fuss about Clybourne Park?

Comments6

By Bruce Norris. Directed by Janet Wright. An Arts Club Theatre production. At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Wednesday, September 12. Continues until October 7

Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park has won both Pulitzer and Olivier awards, but what is the fuss about?

Norris’s script riffs on racial tensions. In Act 1, which is set in 1959, Bev and Russ—a white, middle-aged couple living in the white, middle-class Chicago neighbourhood of Clybourne Park—are surprised to find that the family they have sold their house to through their real-estate agent is black. Karl, who represents the neighbourhood association, warns that if Bev and Russ allow the sale to go through, Clybourne Park will become a black community and property values will tank.

In Act 2 (2009), we find out that Karl was right: the now primarily African-American neighbourhood is pulling itself out of violent times, and the new black neighbourhood association isn’t keen on a young white couple buying Bev and Russ’s old house. Clybourne resident Lena worries that if the gentrifying area whitens, the history of her community’s upward mobility will be lost.

Nice premise. But the racism in Act 1 is antique and obvious, and the reversal in Act 2 is hardly more subtle. In the only passage that resonates for me, the second-act characters explore politically incorrect humour. (“What do a white woman and a tampon have in common? They’re both stuck up cunts.”) But racial specifics that are hugely charged in the States are far less inflammatory and less interesting here. Yes, there is racism in Canada and some of it is antiblack, but the narratives of Canadian racism and Canadian real estate are very different from the narratives that play out in this piece.

Besides, the play is morally static: one character in each act holds the high ground. In Act 1 it’s the homeowner Russ, who rails at the insensitivity of the rest, and in Act 2 it’s the new buyer Steve, who argues that everybody should calm down and cop a sense of humour. So the play isn’t as complicated as it pretends to be.

Both of the characters who are essentially right are also male and white. And speaking of biases, I was offended by the playwright’s portrayal of Betsy, the deaf wife of Karl, the neighbourhood-association guy. Her deafness may be a metaphor for the other characters’ self-involvement, but playwright Norris also exploits her deafness to make her look stupid: “Wha’ happen’?”

Director Janet Wright doesn’t help things out. Stylistically, Act 1 is a mess. Andrew Wheeler’s Russ is impressively naturalistic, while Deborah Williams’s Bev is a cartoon of a ’50s housewife. Because Act 1 lacks a stable stylistic bottom line, its combination of comedy and darkness feels incoherent rather than complex. Fortunately, Act 2 is much more consistent.

Playing racist Karl and outspoken buyer Steve—all of the actors are double-cast—Robert Moloney shines. In his Arts Club debut, Sebastien Archibald creates a handsome pair of portraits—as an ineffectual priest in Act 1 and a wry lawyer in Act 2. I also particularly enjoyed the pissed-off restraint that Marci T. House brings to Francine, the maid, in the first half and the acidic righteousness of her Lena in the second.

Ted Roberts’s set is a barn—way too big—and the main entrance is hidden far stage right.

The script has won big awards, but in this production and in this cultural context, Clybourne Park looks minor.

Comments (6) Add New Comment
Anonymous
Names reversed - Francine is the maid, Lena is the woman in Act II.
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Rating: 0
Colin Thomas GS
Thanks, Anonymous. That'll be fixed.
The Arts Club programme has the Act 1 and 2 names reversed.
Colin Thomas
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Rating: +5
Julie
C.T. was being nice... Janet Wright castrated this script in 3 ways.... a) 3 different acting styles on stage... b) the set for Act ll looked like an East Van fixer-upper... when it should have looked like a Chicago crack house. Then when Lena fights for her (black) culture's preservation, we the (white) middle class audience, can be stunned - what culture is that?! And c) in Act l A. Wheeler plays Russ with innocence when hearing that his house has sold to black people. But that's his revenge on the neighborhood that turned against his son!
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Rating: +4
Weedwacker
Having seen this show in London & Chicago, I felt that this production was pretty good. Now after reading this review, Vancouver or should I say the reviewer gives exactly the type of review that I would expect from a white, male myopic view. Obviously you're too deep into the woods to see the trees, or what the playwright was saying with his script. As an American (of color) now living in Canada, for over 20 yeas, I always find it so interesting the way too many Canadians love to think that the problems south of the 49th, don't apply here. They do. Let's go have a conversation with the First nation community, or even the Asian community. But I guess it must be pretty nice to live in that precious white skin of yours so you don't have to take into account the reality of what life is like to have skin other than white.

Julie, I can agree with you about the different acting styles on the stage. But, let me ask you this..,have you ever actually BEEN to Chicago? The set was an exact replica of a Chicago bungalow style home...but obviously you're an 'expert' on Chicago architecture. And maybe you should also do a bit of research about the playwright and his reasons for writing his play and who his target audience is. "Then when Lena fights for her (black) culture's preservation, we the (white) middle class audience, can be stunned - what culture is that?!" Because this comment was about as ignorant & bigoted as a comment can get. But I guess you think that only white culture is relevant. But then again...you're exactly the audience Bruce Norris wrote this play for.
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Rating: -1
Anonymous
Clybourne Park as the Arts Club's Season Opener? Really? Luckily some decent acting helped but overall, the park lacks spark. Having the actors play comPletely different characters in Act 1 and 2 exemplified some top notch acting .Andrew Wheeler proved how less is so much more with his strong portrayal of Russ in the First half of Act One. His Handy Man role in the Second Act was bang on from the gum chewing to his abrubt lack of social graces. Unfortunately , the choice for his stage wife to be played as a caricature of a stereotypical 5o's housewife was weak and not funny although it was meant to be. I felt embarrassed for the actor. Luckily her role as a realtor in the second act gave her a chance to shine. Robert Maloney's performance in Act 2 was very natural. His energy,pacing and physicality brought strength to his character. Daren
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Rating: +1
KJB
Clybourne Park as the Arts Club's Season Opener? Really? Luckily some decent acting helped but overall, the park lacks spark. Having the actors play comPletely different characters in Act 1 and 2 exemplified some top notch acting .Andrew Wheeler proved how less is so much more with his strong portrayal of Russ in the First half of Act One. His Handy Man role in the Second Act was bang on from the gum chewing to his abrubt lack of social graces. Unfortunately , the choice for his stage wife to be played as a caricature of a stereotypical 5o's housewife was weak and not funny although it was meant to be. I felt embarrassed for the actor. Luckily her role as a realtor in the second act gave her a chance to shine. Robert Maloney's performance in Act 2 was very natural. His energy,pacing and physicality brought strength to his character. Daren Herbert was brilliant. I've seen him before in Lobby Hero and Glengarry glen Ross . The storyline in the second act was confusing . Throgh Most of it, I was trying to figure out what kind of meeting they were all having and what was at stake. Arts Club needs to continue bringing in high calibre actors but needs to raise the bar on the productions it selects to present. Let's not have a repeat performance of what happened to the Vancouver Playhouse. !
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Rating: +1
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