For a play that’s ostensibly about communication, Clybourne Park sure revels in its characters’ failures to do just that. Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer-winning script basks in watching its characters fail at making points, or getting hung up in trying to defend bad ones. We’re not talking about people misunderstanding one another: these people crash and burn a conversation, try to clarify, and only make it worse. Misappropriate arguments and mistimed responses turn molehills into a full Rocky Mountain range of incorrectness, and, in doing that, the Citadel’s production, directed by James MacDonald, makes watching it all go wrong as hilarious as it is squirm-inducing.
It’s a curiously structured play: it feels, in a way, more like two particularly biting, thematically linked one-acts paired together than a cohesive singular show. Act One, set in 1959 and directly connected to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (it shares a character), finds a couple, days away from moving away from the neighbourhood, set upon by their (white) neighbours to try and prevent the sale of their property to a (black) family. Everyone practises verbal gymnastics to get around saying what they really mean about race in the ’50s, and really, it’s an easy batch of arguments to watch get skewed.
But that half sets up a bit of a bait and switch: Act Two picks up in the same house in 2009—there’s a pretty spectacular set-change that lets 50 years of decay and damage warp the set (as well as intermission music that leaps a decade with every song, leading us to the play’s present)—and finds an opposite scenario playing out: a much rougher Clybourne Park neighbourhood now finds itself experiencing gentrification, and a (white) couple trying to move into the neighbourhood find a petition attempting to head them off, apparently due to their plans to aggressively renovate the property.
The switch is that 2009 isn’t so detached like watching racism play out in the ’50s is, yet their pairing here shows how those same attitudes can exist, wrapped up in a moral politeness and platitudes.
The cast runs headlong into all of this with aplomb. It’s an impressive ensemble: there are fewer stand-out players as particular moments where each get to shine: in Act Two, after the negotiations spiral into a toxic battle of “racist” jokes, Sereana Malani perfectly delivers the room-destroying best of them; doing double-duty as the most misguided figure in both halves, Martin Happer gives us glorious downward spirals of thinking in each (only few of his arguments, in the 2009 segment, feel unintentionally clichéd as written); Doug Mertz commands the first half with presence, a performance that slowly boils over; and Michael Blake, while more sedated in each era than most other characters, is compelling in how that quietness hides more than it reveals.
At the very end of Clybourne Park comes a beat that bridges the two halves. I’m not sure, as it plays out here, that it hits with full impact: overlapping with the end of an act that just savages (with comedy) the characters onstage, the heart-tug tones of the show’s final moments seem a little too condensed, too connected to what just happened, to resonate as it should. But it’s an important beat regardless, as it underlines the biggest, most poignant point Clybourne Park makes (between your squirms): that as we get caught up in illusions and arguments and artificially constructed prejudices about the world we live in, more important sentiments are quietly ignored, left to erode on their own and threatening to cause permanent grief, unexpectedly, from the background of it all.
Until Sun, Feb 16 (7:30 pm)
Directed by James MacDonald
Citadel Theatre, $35 – $93.45