What's the fuss about Clybourne Park?
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.