If I’d known that the goal of Clybourne Park is to shock us with the politically incorrect statements spewing from its characters’ mouths, I would’ve skipped it. I hoped for more than just shock value from the play, a sort of companion piece to Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun. Clybourne Park’s two acts serve as bookends to Hansberry’s story of the Younger family: the first act, set in 1959, centers on the white family living in the home that the Youngers want to buy, and the second act, set in 2009, is about one of their descendents selling the home to a white couple as the neighborhood gentrifies. It’s a promising set-up, but, overall, the play lacks emotional resonance. The characters, especially in the second act, are little more than mouthpieces for racially insensitive and offensively clueless sentiments. While their sentiments may draw shocked laughter from us because we recognize in them thoughts we’re guilty of as well, those sentiments don’t come together to tell us anything unique or insightful about the characters or their relationships with each other.
The first act does manage some emotional depth, thanks mostly to Frank Wood’s performance as Russ, a man who’s at once trying to hold on to happy memories and escape tragic ones as he and his wife prepare to move out of their home. Annie Parisse (Rubicon, Law & Order) also stands out in the first act as Betsy, a woman who is hearing-impaired. I think the best actors are the ones who are always listening to what’s going on around them, so it’s fascinating to watch Ms. Parisse stay connected while playing a woman who cannot actually hear. She’s fully immersed in Betsy’s reality, aware that she’s missing out on some things, but always working to pick up on other cues – body language, facial expressions – to gauge the tense situation around her. Unfortunately, whatever resonance the first act has is almost derailed by Christina Kirk’s performance as Russ’ wife, Bev. I’m not sure what informs her acting choices, but her flailing arms and quavering voice remind me forcefully of Kristin Wiig’s Target Lady from Saturday Night Live.
Clybourne Park shows us that no matter how much social progress we think we’ve made, no matter how enlightened we think we are in our perceptions of others, the same old ugly bigotry still exists just beneath the veneer of political correctness. It would’ve been interesting for the play to go beyond that fact, for it to be a starting point for a new conversation, rather than the play’s only point.