I have a dirty theater secret: I thought Clybourne Park was pretty good. As in merely pretty good. As opposed to the modern classic it's now perceived to be, after its premiere Off-Broadway brought it the Pulitzer Prize, followed by runs at the Mark Taper Forum, a hop to Broadway and, finally, on Sunday, the Tony Award for Best Play.
It's obvious why Clybourne is a good bet to win in your Tony Awards pool or Pulitzer Prize for Drama draft (and I'm not ashamed to admit I've participated in both such things). It's a well-made play, along with the perceived edginess that comes with a play that talks about race, written by a playwright, Bruce Norris, who had been on the rise and was considered due for such consideration.
Quick plot summary, for the uninitiated: In the classic 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun, the matriarch of the African-American Younger family purchases a house in the white Clybourne Park neighborhood of Chicago, with the hope that it would bring the family a better life. Clybourne Park is set in that house, and in the first act the white family living there is visited by neighborhood busybody Karl Lindner — who also shows up in Raisin, with the same agenda he has here: stopping the Younger family from moving in.
In the next few decades, the neighborhood becomes a black neighborhood. And in the second act, set in the present day, a well-to-do white couple buys the house and plans to make some renovations, while their black neighbors — sensitive to the historic nature of the house and the neighborhood — try to change their minds.
It's a clever conceit: the last half-century of American race relations played out through real estate. So why did I, along with a number of friends who have seen it, come away surprisingly disappointed?
Let's start with some relatively cosmetic details, which are more important than they seem. The first act opens with the wife of the house, a daffy Edith Bunker type, remarking to her husband about what a funny word “Neapolitan” is, and where could it possibly come from, and when he informs her that it refers to Naples, she says it couldn't possibly; it must be something else. It's a (very) prolonged way of showing her provincial outlook on life, hinting at how she's been sheltered from the realities of the world outside her white bubble. Plus the audience gets to feel smart — yes, we know what Neapolitan is, even if she doesn't.
The conversation is not only alienating to the audience in the way the issue is belabored, but also way too familiar. It's the type of exchange we see all too often in “white-people-problems” plays, the kind that populate the schedules of high-end nonprofit theaters like South Coast Rep, and New York's Playwrights Horizons, where Clybourne Park premiered. These plays usually take place in upper-middle-class homes, featuring characters similar in demographics to the people sitting in the audience, highlighting the characters' clever, self-deprecating takes on life while ultimately poking fun at them and unearthing their urban malaise.
There are great ones — my favorites include David Auburn's Proof and Donald Margulies' Brooklyn Boy — but many of them are merely pretty good, all blending together into one long conversation about cellphones and Starbucks proliferation (both of which get nods in Clybourne Park as well).
In the second half, the present-day characters spent a lot of time finishing each other's sentences in that awkward way characters in contemporary plays do, a way that feels like it's trying to be naturalistic but is actually just the opposite. My girlfriend and I sometimes mimic such dialogue around the house, like while making dinner: “Would you like me to—” “To make the salad? But—” “But—” “But we have no lettuce—” “No lettuce, yes.”
In Clybourne, the angular dialogue is by design, as the play is about what we can't talk about. The New York Times review noted that the play was trying to convey “the emptiness of most human communication,” that talk is “valueless.” But in the Taper production, there was no ironic distance from the talk — the play was getting true mileage from those cellphone jokes, and my audience ate it up. The biggest laugh of the entire show was a crack about a new Whole Foods. Plus, really? Talk is cheap? Communication problems? Dancing around issues? These are the bread and butter of white-people-problems plays.
But Clybourne Park also has bigger issues. The truncated format prevents us from following any character's journey across the entire play (unless you count the house as a character). Plus, unfortunately, the second act is more in-your-head than the first, thus preventing the play from capitalizing emotionally on what we've seen earlier.
The first act has its poignant moments, such as when the husband who owns the house (played by Frank Wood at the Taper) defies Lindner's racism and makes way for the Younger family to move. But the second act is really just an argument, without much choice-making to progress a story forward. Just people talking or not talking to each other about whatever they're talking about — or not. The husband of the couple who bought the house broaches the idea that this dispute over their house is all about race, and the rest of the group, predictably, reacts with horror. The cover of the published version of the play shows a chess board, with white pieces on one side and black on the other, and indeed the characters in the play feel like chess pieces being maneuvered around for the playwright's ends. They spend most of the act statically arranged in a semi-circle of chairs, only getting up when it is their turn to make a move.
Pairing Clybourne with a production of A Raisin in the Sun this past spring was a commendable choice by L.A.'s Center Theatre Group. It's always great to see the comparison of two different works on the same subject matter, a bit of wrangling that's more difficult to fulfill than it may seem.
But Clybourne suffers by comparison. When A Raisin in the Sun began, I was struck by the directness of the dialogue. Playwriting teachers always told me not to have the characters talk about the thing they're talking about — the husband talks about how he hates the wife's pot roast, yes, but what he really means is, I hate your guts and I never want to see you again. And yet, in practice, in a classic play such as this one, direct dialogue allows you to create more emotion — perhaps because you've already hit bedrock, and now can chisel deeper.
Clybourne isn't trying to compete with A Raisin in the Sun — it's going for provocation and insight more than emotion and narrative. But if Clybourne didn't want to be a disappointment when seen three days after Raisin, it would have to be pretty damn provocative.
And how provocative, really, is the idea that we have a problem talking about race in America — can't talk about it, don't know how to talk about it, or dance around it? It's been said before, many times. Truthfully, a play isn't obligated to teach us a lesson that we can take home with us — it's about getting us to feel something meaningful, and this play, in that department, falls regrettably short. While it won over Tony voters by examining charged issues, it lacks a difficult-to-execute but still crucial aspect of drama — a compelling story.