Clybourne Park arrives bearing serious dramatic lineage. Bruce Norris’s 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winner for drama, which, under Pam McKinnon’s adroit direction has already enjoyed a successful run at the Off-Broadway Playwrights Horizons in addition to London and Los Angeles tours, is a direct descendant of Lorraine Hansberry’s milestone work A Raisin in the Sun, set in the house that will be filled, and then, a half-century later, vacated by the windfall-inheriting Younger family.
Knowledge of Raisin is not required to understand Clybourne; all that’s required is a keen grasp of what makes people tick. Norris has a supreme grip on the inherent selfishness and groupthink that befalls adults who think that what’s best for their interests overlaps with what’s right for all. So when Karl Lindner (an outstanding Jeremy Shamos) tries to convince Bev (Christina Kirk) and Russ (Frank Wood) in 1959 that a black family should not move to their suburban Chicago block, he thinks his argument maintains a sense of moral urgency.
Fifty years later, when the white house hosts a black family and this same Chicago neighborhood has seen property values decline (set designer Daniel Ostling’s quickie deterioration of the set between acts is miraculous), yuppie couple Steve (Shamos again) and wife Lindsey (Annie Parisse) look to move in.
Part of the fun of Clybourne comes from who the actors from the first act go on to play in the second. For instance, Crystal A. Dickinson, letter-perfect here, goes from playing a domestic employee to an uber-articulate professional (Damon Gupton sharply underplays her husband in both 1959 and 2009). Wood ends up playing a construction worker in the second act, which sadly deprives the brilliant actor of the same dramatic opportunities afforded him in the play’s first act. And a terrific Brendan Griffin ultimately plays three distinct roles, each with nuanced shades of quiet understanding.
But Clybourne comes alive when its characters shout, and it is here that it also shares play DNA with recent Broadway hits like August: Osage County, God of Carnage and Other Desert Cities, in which a bunch of seemingly well-adjusted adults sit in a room together and tear into each other. Of the three, Clybourne most closely mirrors August’s keen observations of how grown-ups view entitlement as applied to their own manifest destiny.
Norris is able to show, in ways both horrifying and hilarious, how racism and sexism seem to come embedded within us all. Individual achievement, the play asserts, isn’t enough; one must also prove superior to all of those around them.
McKinnon’s ensemble offers a master class in not just individual performance achievement but great teamwork. Looking at any cast member at any moment tells you everything about who they are and where they want to be (for most of them, it’s rarely in the living room set). There isn’t a square peg to be found in this group, whose nimble handling of Norris’ dialogue suggests just how nuanced the playwright’s ear is for the different rhythms of how people talk. But it’s when his characters aren’t talking that Clybourne says the most.
Through July 8. Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St., clybournepark.com; $50+.
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