TRYING TO GET IN Flipping the script in Clybourne Park.
Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun remains a watershed work of drama. Its story, of a black working-class family’s attempt to move into the white Chicago neighborhood of Clybourne Park, was written by a black woman, and it treats not just an African-American family’s dream to join the middle-class, but also complexities of racial identity and women’s roles. Film versions have starred Sidney Poitier and P. Diddy, a Broadway revival this spring will feature Denzel Washington, and a few years back, Hansberry’s classic also inspired a new theatrical riffing: Bruce Norris’s 2010 Clybourne Park, which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, and which is on stage now at Good Theater, under the direction of Brian P. Allen.
The two acts of Norris’s script span 50 years in the same house bought by the family in Raisin. Act One is set in 1959, just as the current owners of the home, Bev (Amy Roche) and Russ (Stephen Underwood), a white middle-aged couple who have suffered a tragedy, are moving out. As they sit among their boxes, neighbors show up: Neighborhood-association representative Karl (Mark Rubin), wants to keep the new owners out of the neighborhood, while young pastor Jim (Lucas O’Neil) wants Russ to emote. Meanwhile, black maid Francine (Noelle LuSane) just wants to end her day and drive away with her husband Albert (Bari Robinson). But before this day ends, varieties of strife will ensue in Bev and Russ’s emptied, beige-on-beige living room.
Bev and Russ begin the act with banter that feels a little sitcom-y, but the dynamics between characters grow more interestingly nuanced. LuSane is superb as she walks Francine’s line between carefully cordial professionalism and her own watchful intelligence and judgments. O’Neil tempers Jim’s smiley meddling with true concern, while Rubin, handling the jackassiest of the character work in both acts, deftly raises Karl’s awkward pomposity into full-blown virulence. In Roche’s hands, Bev’s sincerity cuts sympathetically through her attempts to keep up appearances, while Underwood does a fine job of containing his anger in tight-lipped “Yup”s, before exploding. And in the later moments of the act, in the aftermath of myriad shit hitting the fan, Underwood has never been more understated or affecting.
Act Two flips forward to 2009 in the same house, now marred with water damage and graffiti (the set design transforms the place impressively). Tensions are latent as the new owners of the home, Steve (Rubin) and his wife Lindsey (Sally Wood) want into the neighborhood on their own terms, and they sit down with Kathy (Roche), Tom (O’Neil), and Lena (LaSane) and her husband Kevin (Robinson), from the neighborhood association, to hash it out. In some senses, the tables are turned from Act One, and housing codes, racism, and gentrification become topics of heated, often juvenile arguments. In Wood’s hands, Lindsey, who’s given some damnably self-righteous and politically correct lines, isn’t held up to ridicule; she comes across as a woman genuinely trying to do right, even if she overlooks her own privilege and selfishness. On the other hand, as Steve — a 13-year-old man in shorts and a baseball cap and the purest object of contempt in the show — Rubin pulls out the stops to make him a grade-A caricatured jerk.