Bruce Norris’s play “Clybourne Park” is usually referred to as a “response” to Lorraine Hansberry’s beautiful “A Raisin in the Sun,” so it seems fitting that Playmaker’s Repertory Company would offer up the two shows in rotating repertory. Viewing the duo in such rapid succession, however, only serves to highlight the flaws in Norris’ version and to bring out the beauty of Hansberry’s. Norris’ play brutally confronts the race issues that Hansberry’s so delicately and honestly touches upon and, in comparison, feels clumsy and unbalanced. Another major flaw is that while Hansberry presented issues that were rarely alluded to—at least in the theatre—Norris brings nothing new or unknown to viewers. When viewed independently, however, Norris’ offering manages to be thoughtful and mildly entertaining.
It also has to be said that Norris’s shortcomings as a playwright cannot and should not be blamed on PRC, and the company does a fine job with the less than perfect material. The story, which is really two stories, begins with husband and wife team, Bev (Constance Macy) and Russ (Jay O’Berski). They have recently lost their troubled son Kenneth (Josh Tobin) to suicide and, as a result, are in the process of selling their house, the same house that Hansberry’s Younger family will be moving into. The story-related interconnectedness between the two plays ends there, with the exception of character Karl Linder (Matt Garner), who appears in the earlier play as the “concerned” homeowner who tries to persuade the Youngers from moving into Clybourne Park. Garner, by the way, is wonderfully slimy in his role in both productions.
The trials and tribulations of Bev and Russ are short-lived, however, as the second act brings the audience back to the present day, wonderfully represented by PRC with Big Gulp cups, cell phones, and all of the accoutrements that go along with life in today’s world. All of the actors reappear as new characters, with the main focus being Lindsey (Kelsey Didion) and Steve (Garner), a couple who wish to buy and replace the old Younger home in the now-rundown Clybourne Park. Their wish to tear down this historic and revered (by some) site brings up issues of race and leads to many onstage racist (and sexist) jokes. While it’s clear that Norris wanted to tackle and bring to light the changing face of racism in America, what ensues is ultimately just a rehashing of unfortunate truths everyone is already aware of. While the cast does a good job and the production values are high, if you can only see one of the two shows, don’t choose this one.