Theater review: ‘Clybourne Park’ at San Francisco’s A.C.T.

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As anyone who caught “The Pain and the Itch” at the Theatre @ Boston Court a couple of seasons back can verify, Bruce Norris doesn’t write plays to win popularity contests. With an irascible fearlessness, he flies in the face of political correctness. Tucking in audiences with liberal bedtime stories isn’t his mode. Equally daring, this actor turned playwright doesn’t play favorites with his characters, not even those who may share his point of view. Anyone onstage is fair game for unmasking.

“Clybourne Park,” which opened Wednesday at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, continues Norris’ assault on sanctimony. Under attack are all the old bromides about community. Impatient with Kumbaya claptrap, Norris takes a more Nietzschean view of society, observing that even when civility is in the air, the struggle for domination is ongoing. A realist with a chip on his shoulder, he doesn’t allocate much room for love, but his sneaky humor makes the disquieting truths he unearths easier to bear.


The title comes from Lorraine Hansberry’s irreplaceable “A Raisin in the Sun.” Clybourne Park was the fictitious white neighborhood in Chicago that the African American Younger family was moving to at the end of the play. The house was a repository of dreams for a better quality of life, a sign that progress was being made, that the future was not simply going to extend the injustices of the past. Norris imagines the cultural history of this important literary dwelling, which has been vividly brought to life in different periods of its existence by scenic designer Ralph Funicello. The first act tells the story of the couple who unwittingly sold the house to the Youngers. The second act—set 50 years later, as the now-black neighborhood is undergoing gentrification—explores the tensions that result when a white couple planning to rebuild on the property are confronted with opposition from neighbors who want to protect the old character of the community.

Set in different eras and acted, under Jonathan Moscone’s direction, in different styles, these two halves flesh out a picture of the persistence of human beings to divide themselves into self and other. Times change and societies grow up, but Norris is leery of patting humanity on the back. When he scratches the surface of enlightenment—with all the unforgiving sharpness of an ice pick—he finds that individuals are more or less the same lonely creatures trying to survive in an intrusive, hypocritical world.

If anything has evolved, it isn’t moral goodness but self-consciousness. People may have become more adept at concealing their baser impulses behind an oh-so-sensitive front, but conflict stands ready to expose the fundamental fact of our hostile, territorial natures.

Clearly, the deep emotional yearnings of Hansberry’s drama aren’t going to be matched by Norris, who prefers the dark side of comedy to the luminous pathos of conventional drama. The only character he borrows from “A Raisin in the Sun” is Karl Lindner (Richard Thieriot), the unsympathetic representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, who tries to talk the Youngers out of moving into the area, arguing that “Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities.”

In Norris’ revamp, Karl barges in on Bev (René Augesen) and Russ (Anthony Fusco), the 1950s owners of the house who are packing up their belongings amid their lingering grief for their son, a Korean War veteran who committed suicide after it was revealed that he had killed innocent people in the field of battle. Karl tries to persuade the couple to call off the sale, but Russ isn’t in the mood to do Clybourne Park any favors. The community, he feels, turned its back on his son, and so why should he care if property values plummet after an African American family moves in?

Adopting the mannerisms of 1950s television drama, the actors proceed in a stylized fashion that accentuates the strain of polite middle-class decorum, with all the rage and hysteria simmering underneath. The low-boil farcical interactions—which also include Karl’s pregnant deaf wife (Emily Kitchens), a minister (Manoel Felciano) sent in to counsel Russ, and Bev’s African American housekeeper (Omozé Idehenre) and the housekeeper’s husband (Gregory Wallace)—are meant to seem somewhat contrived, although the cast appears at times to be playing the zeitgeist rather than their lines. As a result, the humor occasionally comes across as muffled.

The manners and mores of the play’s second half, set in 2009, are more comfortably worn by the ensemble. Steve (Thieriot) and his pregnant wife, Lindsey (Kitchens), are sitting with their lawyer (Augesen) in the dilapidated Clybourne Park house that they’re planning to tear down and rebuild. The run-down neighborhood has become “desirable “ again, but Lena (Idehenre), the grand niece of the Younger family matriarch and a long-time resident of Clybourne Park, wants to be sure that the “historical value” of the area isn’t overrun with garishly expensive taste, and she’s started a petition with her husband (Wallace) and Tom (Felciano), a representative of the Owners Association.

The meeting, endlessly delayed by cell phones, tangential bickering and Norris’ somewhat annoying penchant for clashes over incidental words, is an attempt to arrive at a compromise between the two sides. The overriding joke is that, for all the strides that have been made in race relations, people are still having a devil of a time getting over their differences, which if anything have only multiplied over the last half century.

“The history of America is the history of private property,” Steve asserts in the heat of debate, but his point doesn’t inspire much comity. “Clybourne Park” suggests that the American dream of home ownership is rooted in the same territorial impulse that provokes one race to enslave another or one country to bomb another. Perhaps this explains why the specter of this house isn’t Mama from “A Raisin in the Sun” but Bev and Russ’ disgraced veteran son—a perfect symbol of a country at war with its own violent legacy.

--Charles McNulty