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article imageClybourne Park offers a poke, not a punch, on race relations Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Feb 26, 2013 in Entertainment
Toronto - Pulitzer-winning 'Clybourne Park' recently opened in Toronto. Produced as part of Mirvish's Second Stage Series, it's a tale that touches on many themes, especially race relations and economics. It runs now through March 3rd.
The work was originally produced by Studio 180 Theatre in association with the Canadian Stage in 2012 at the Berkeley Street Theatre, where the claustrophobic feel of the material got lost in the space.
Here, Studio 180 is working with Mirvish in the far better-suited cozy Panasonic Theatre. Clybourne Park a counterpart to Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 drama A Raisin In The Sun. Though not entirely necessary, one is helped immensely by have some prior knowledge of Hansberry's landmark play in seeing Bruce Norris' much-lauded work. In the latter, the black Younger family receive a visit from Karl Lindner (of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association), who offers them money not buy a house in his all-white Chicago neighbourhood.
Clybourne Park itself takes place in two separate time periods, opening with the sale of that very house by its white owners in 1959. Bev (Maria Ricossa) runs around packing, chirping comments and requests to Russ (Michael Healey), her forlorn, newspaper-reading husband. We soon learn why the couple have sold for less than the property's value, and why they're moving to the suburbs: their war-veteran son committed suicide in the house, and they've sold to the Youngers without revealing this vital bit of information. They're soon visited by Hal Lindner (Mark McGrinder) and his deaf, pregnant wife Betsy (Kimwun Perehinec), with Karl trying to convince the couple to back out of the sale.
The second half of the play takes place in 2009, when Dan (McGrinder) and Lindsey (Kimwun Perehinec) have bought the same property; they plan to change the entire layout of the house, and are already in the process of knocking down trees on its surrounding property. Local black couple Kevin (Sterling Jarvis) and Lena (Audrey Dwyer) want to maintain some semblance of local authenticity in an area facing rapid gentrification.
The premise of Clybourne Park piggybacks off of Hansberry, while offering none of the wisdom of her experience. It's good enough drama, but operates on a massive level of assumption where the writer's position (privileged, white, making a successful living in the arts) is expected to be swallowed whole by a (once more, assumed) overwhelmingly white, theater-loving audience. There's something rampantly ignorant, and yet, simultaneously patronizing about both its tone and content. As The Globe And Mail's J. Kelly Nestruck rightly points out, "There’s a straw-man quality to several of the white characters and a self satisfied mien to its tackling of taboos."
Writing aside, it's a pity director Joel Greenberg chooses to play many of the work's more important moments for cheap laughs and effect. The hokey, too-drawn-out conversation on the origin of the word "Neopolitan," and Francine (Dwyer)'s frustrated frowns and head shakes to her husband Albert (Jarvis), are given the wrong tone, one lacking the sort of weight such moments deserve. If the show's director can't take this world seriously, why should we? Michael Gianfresco's corny, unnecessarily cartoonish design exacerbates the issue by offering a hokey vision of what should be a more serious world. You half-expect Archive Bunker to wander in and bark at Edith to bring him his slippers.
The design reflects Greenberg’s awkwardness around playing the material (however limited it is) in any honest way. It's important the audience experiences a smidge of the Chicago neighbourhoods of 1959 and 2009, in all their ugly glory. But a too-delicate approach mars the show's first half, and a high-and-mighty tone taints the second, wherein the show's jaw-dropper jokes are delivered from a safe, smug distance; any potential understanding we have of characters -their lives, their hopes, their aspirations -get snuffed out in alternating waves of vocal incomprehensibility, poor staging, and strange blocking that makes the piece feel, at times, like a game show, at others, a sitcom.
The second half of Clybourne Park lays bare a nasty cynicism that cripples any potential opportunity for growth or true engagement with the characters or their life situations -but perhaps that's the point. Between the rude jokes and mean barbs, characters talk over each other, so that not everything can be totally understood (nor, presumably, is meant to) but the technique points at this particular ensemble sounding over-rehearsed and far too polite -at times they wait to be interrupted, or for their castmates to finish their sentences. There’s a sense that this is simply a neighbourhood squabble, and not the encapsulation of a horribly fraught historical relationship between people of very different histories. The awful behaviour on display in the play's second half is important to get right onstage: it implies the poor manners, disrespect, and basic ugliness that lurks in many of the characters' psyches. No one in the script is remotely likeable, and no one is supposed to be. Everyone's lost something -long ago, recently, is in the process of it, is angry, grieving, seeking justice.
This sense of loss is best embodied in the performance of Michael Healey (picture  left  with Maria ...
This sense of loss is best embodied in the performance of Michael Healey (picture, left, with Maria Ricossa) as the suffering Russ in the first half of the play; his is a genuine heartbreak, full of silence, short replies, and heavy sighs. When we see his anger, we see a father’s righteous indignation that gorgeous encapsulates the gashing wound that sits at the heart of the community, and perhaps 'Clybourne Park' itself.
Mirvish Productions
Loss is experienced as not strictly a personal thing, but something that can and does affect whole communities and generations. Such an explosive catharsis does nothing to make Russ likeable as a character, in and of himself but that’s hardly the point; it brings home the issues Norris tries desperately to get at. Equally effective is Mark McGrinder, whose capacity for playing annoying, self-involved dickheads across the generations cannot be underestimated. Maria Ricossa delivers a performance of astonishing contrasts: chipper and chirpy in the play’s first half, unrepentantly snobbish in the second, she does as much as she can with a couple of cliche-ridden parts. The same is true of Audrey Dwyer, whose silently-seething Lena in the first half gives way to the oceanic rage of Lena in the second.
In the show’s program notes, a message from Studio 180’s Artistic team reads, "“A battle over race and real estate” is the tidy catch phrase we’ve used to encapsulate the play’s central conflicts, but the world of Clybourne Park is anything but tidy."
Maybe this approach is the central problem with the production: race and real estate might have a nice onomatopoeiac ring (and make for a handy marketing tool), but that’s all. Gentrification, particularly in some areas of the United States, can’t and shouldn’t be played for cute effect, much less for guffaws. When it comes to an artistic work examining racial issues with the sort of respect and thoughtfulness they deserve... well, residents of Clybourne Parks everywhere will have to wait a bit longer.
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