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Print Version
Photo: Stephen A'Court
Photo: Stephen A'Court
By Bruce Norris
Directed by Ross Jolly

at Circa One, Wellington
From 8 Sep 2012 to 6 Oct 2012

Reviewed by John Smythe, 10 Sep 2012

Thanks largely to the Steppenwolf Theatre of Chicago, with which Bruce Norris is associated as an actor and playwright, he saw seven of his plays produced over 14 years before going on to hit the jackpot with Clybourne Park. More often than not, that's what it takes to grow excellent playwrights.  

Director Ross Jolly scored the rights to it after it won the Olivier, Critics' Circle and Evening Standard Best Play awards in 2010 and before it won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2011 and Tony Award for Best Play this year. Once more Circa has been quick to capitalise on the best of the best from overseas.

Clybourne Park is very cleverly crafted from a simple premise.

In 1959, 406 Clybourne Street, Chicago, in a white middle class neighbourhood, has just been sold to a “coloured” family and certain elements within the local residents' association are concerned it will erode their property values and force them to move, not that they'll spit it out in so many words.

Half a century later, in 2009, the area has become a black community, the same house has now been sold to a young white couple and the residents' association is concerned at the nature of their renovation plans, not to mention the effect the gentrification of Clybourne Park will have on the affordability of such properties.

It's a ‘the more things change the more they stay the same' story that works on many levels. In both acts, amid a lot of apparently trivial preoccupations and inconsequential conversations, the un-lanced boil of unacknowledged racism festers. As the characters tip-toe and tap-dance around the real issues, there is plenty of space for us, in the audience, to put ourselves in the ‘conversation'. In fact it is impossible not to, which makes it as confronting as it is entertaining.

Act One is enhanced by the underlying pressure of an unresolved family issue within the vendor family. And by an ingenious device directly related to the renovations in dispute, the trunk which holds the answers is exhumed in Act Two. Again, as detail of it contents are left for us to consider, the themes of avoidance and denial are foremost. And in the last moments we are in the privileged position of knowing more than any individual in the play does.

Suffice to say, that dimension of the play touches on the question of ‘our boys' fighting in wars overseas – which, in the USA especially, is also a race issue statistics-wise – and the hidden atrocities that, when exposed, play havoc with pro-war propaganda and the lives of those involved.  

All this is excellent material for a potent socio-political comedy. Intriguingly the publicity material quotes reviews which variously call it “uproariously funny” (Entertainment Weekly), “funny as hell” (NY Post) and “pulverizingly funny” (Variety). At the second (Sunday afternoon) performance I attended, where the majority remember the late 50s well and have lived through the changes from divided to inclusive societies, we certainly laughed loud and hard at pressure-point release moments but mostly we were deeply engaged and quietly attentive while examining our own consciences.

Although the substance of the play is undoubtedly relevant to us, as it is to all western democracies, perhaps the revelation of the home truths is more shocking to Americans, so they laugh harder, more defensively, at feeling more exposed. Or maybe those quotes related specifically to the climax of Act Two.

Casting Maori actors in the Afro-American roles certainly brings the themes closer to home for us. Jolly has cast this production impeccably. All seven actors in the 15 roles claim their contrasting characters utterly, with such apparent ease and conviction that we are free to focus on the unfolding stories; on the gradual exposure of the truths beneath the facades. Take the excellence of each actor in each of their roles as read.

In Act One, only half-dressed and failing to pull his weight with the packing, Russ (Gavin Rutherford) is an unexploded landmine around which his wife Bev (Nikki MacDonnell) is obliged to trip as she maintains the niceties of civilised behaviour – not least in her benign gratitude to their home help, Francine (Nancy Brunning) and her husband Albert (Jade Daniels).

The apparently casual visits of their local minister Jim (Paul Waggott), and neighbours Karl (Andrew Foster) and Betsy (Danielle Mason), turn out to carry the hidden agenda of concern at who the house has been sold to, below the market rate, what's more. Karl's easy accommodation of Betsy's deafness contrasts powerfully with the blind spot he has his fear of difference and change. Jim's hypocrisy is subtly exposed as well. Meanwhile Francine's silent responses and Albert's attempts to be a good citizen generate some of Act One's most potent dramatic power.

The explosive end to Act One blows the lid right off this supposedly decent society. Not that the characters are easily sorted as goodies and baddies. In selling to this family is Russ motivated by ‘colour blindness' or revenge against his two-faced neighbours? Bev may seem the most enlightened and wanting to do the right thing but she remains blissfully unaware of how patronisingly racist her actions are.

Of course by 2009 everyone is much more relaxed and accommodating of cultural diversity. Racism is so last century, right? Yeah, right.

During interval the walls have been stripped of their wallpaper, the stair banisters have been closed in, other bits of wall have been exposed; the whole place – devoid of furnishings – is in disrepair and some tagging suggests it has been uninhabited for some time (an excellent set design by John Hodgkins).

Indeed it turns out the new buyers, Lindsey (Danielle Mason) – “We love this neighbourhood!” – and Steve (Andrew Foster), have eschewed a renovation that would preserve the integrity of the original design for a major rebuild. And it is the height of their plans which have caused a mediation meeting to be called – the dynamics of which are superbly captured, as anyone who has ever attended a poorly chaired community meeting will testify.

Tom (Paul Waggott) is supposed to be facilitating but is constantly interrupted by his cellphone. Contractor Dan (Gavin Rutherford), whose team is trying to put in the utility services, also keeps interrupting. And Lindsey and Steve's lawyer Kathy (Nikki MacDonnell) is keen to talk about her recent travels.

The ice-breaking chit-chat that reveals few degrees of separation between apparent strangers – some of whom are directly related to Act One characters – proves that what we think is a uniquely Kiwi conversation is universal. As the natter continues to divert down various sidetracks – e.g. a dispute about what the capital of Morocco is – tension builds around Lena (Nancy Brunning) needing to say something important while her husband Kevin (Jade Daniels) infuriates her even more by wanting to be everyone's friend.

There is also the ‘joke' Steve wants to tell and Lindsey vetoes, leading to the most overtly hilarious sequence where bad taste jokes are exchanged, not least by Lena, whose objection to the proposed height of the new building may or may not be a smokescreen clouding the real issue regarding property affordability. Could it be that she too is a closet racist? You decide.

I do have two quibbles concerning this act. Giving the characters contemporary smart phones, rather than 2009-style cellphones, means we can't help wondering why someone doesn't simply Google the capital of Morocco and be done with it. And Jolly's decision to seat everyone in a straight line facing the audience seems highly contrived and uninventive. But the juiciness of the pertinent comedy soon transcends such matters.

With the ‘war of the jokes' providing the climax, the dénouement involving the trunk and the fate of Kenneth (Paul Waggott), who served in Korea, brings us back to the motif that connects the fifties to the noughties, and the intra-community concerns to international conflicts, thus exposing us all to our hypocritical selves.

Clybourne Park is a brilliant play deliciously done.
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See also reviews by:
 Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);