Clybourne Park is the second great major American drama about the hell of dealing with a homeowners' association. The first was Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, Clybourne's source material from half a century ago. Both shows are running at Dallas Theater Center (at the Wyly Theatre), sharing cast members and, in a deft bit of stagecraft, a major piece of scenery.
Set on a block of historic homes in Chicago, the newer play by Bruce Norris, a Pulitzer and Tony winner in 2011, unfolds in two chapters. In the first act, we see what's happening in 1959 with the white family in the nice middle-class house that the black family in Raisin is buying. Turns out the white couple, chirpy Bev — played by Sally Nystuen Vahle, who adopts a breathy, June Cleaver-y voice for this character — and morose husband Russ (a tense and wiry Chamblee Ferguson), have no idea that the prospective owners of their two-story craftsman are a large, multi-generational family of African Americans, the Youngers, who are using a financial windfall to move out of poverty. The Youngers would be the first non-white family on the block, something Karl Lindner, the rep from the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, thinks his fellow residents aren't ready for.
DTC company member Steven Walters plays Karl, the only character to straddle both plays (which are running in rotating repertory through October 27). In Raisin, Karl has the awkward task of sitting in the black family's living room to offer them a bribe not to move. In Clybourne, he sits Bev and Russ down to try to convince them not to let the Youngers get their house. (Walters, chin on his chest, mopping his brow with a hanky, is solid at playing the nervous nudnik. He sports the same droopy beige suit in both plays.)
Clybourne Park Plays in rotating repertory with A Raisin in the Sun through October 27 at Dallas Theater Center, Wyly Theatre, 2400 Flora St. Call 214-880-0202.
The second half of Clybourne Park moves the action to 2009. The house, now a rundown hulk, is again the center of local controversy in what has become a predominately African American area. A young white couple (played by Walters and Shakespeare Dallas regular Allison Pistorius) has purchased it as a teardown. They want to erect a McMansion with a koi pond out back, but longtime residents, including the great-niece of Raisin matriarch Lena Younger, think it will spoil the charm of the block. Clybourne turns the tables on the discussions of race and real estate, and does it ever get ugly.
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The first act of Clybourne shares the most with the elegiac Raisin in the Sun. Bev and Russ, like the Youngers in the earlier play, have suffered a tragic loss, with the death of a family member precipitating their desire to change addresses. If only Norris' writing carried through with the quality of Hansberry's. It doesn't.
The best moments of both productions at DTC are in the showdown scenes with the Karl character. In Raisin (directed by Tre Garrett), the proud grandma, Lena (played with a gradual crescendo of feelings by Liz Mikel), has to be the one to finally shove him out the door. In Clybourne (directed by Joel Ferrell), Karl comes up against some festering resentments in home-seller Russ, who, it turns out, has long hated the fake expressions of concern and meddlesome drop-ins by his fellow homeowners. Russ' slow boil, performed exceedingly well by Ferguson, leads to an explosive turning point just before intermission.
Then comes the second half of the play, which amounts to nothing more than one long scene involving 21st century Chicagoans presented as petty, petulant neo-yuppies squabbling over definitions of "easement" and "frontage." The last stretch of Clybourne devolves into characters telling racist jokes — "How is a white woman like a tampon?" — as putdowns, and you start to wonder if Norris is commenting on the level of discourse about these matters now or if he's just run out of ideas.
You can't and won't like anyone in the second act. Not snobby great-niece Lena (Tiffany Hobbs, who plays much more likable college girl Beneatha in Raisin), not her husband Kevin (Hassan El-Amin), not the white couple (although Pistorius and Walters are hilarious in their characters' attempts to remain P.C.), not the spineless association dweeb (SMU student actor Jacob Stewart, the weakest in the ensemble). They're all just terrible people worried about property values.