Within the last few months my homey upper Manhattan enclave has seen the closing of a family-run fruit and vegetable market and a shoe repair shop, the first to be replaced by an upscale wine store, the second by whoever is willing to pay many times the rent that Alex, the toothless shoemaker who often slept on the premises, could afford.
With changes in signage come changes in character. That’s the subject of Bruce Norris’s engaging “Clybourne Park.”
The leading role belongs to the house at 406 Clybourne Street in the fictional white, middle-class Chicago neighborhood that was the setting for Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking 1959 drama, “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Act I is set in 1959 and from the boxes scattered around the living room, it’s clear that a family is moving out. Bev (Christina Kirk) and Russ (Frank Wood), a white couple, are headed for a new neighborhood not far away.
Over the course of an afternoon, they will be visited by their priest (Brendan Griffin) and another couple, Betsy (Annie Parisse) and Karl (Jeremy Shamos), former friends come to dissuade them from completing the apparently unwitting sale to a black family.
“It will happen as follows,” Karl says. “First one family will leave, then another, and another, and each time they do, the values of these properties will decline, and once that process begins, once you break that egg, Bev, all the kings horses, etcetera.”
Witnessing, and then unwillingingly participating, in the scene are the black housekeeper (Crystal A. Dickinson) and her husband (Damon Gupton)
Act II, set 20 years later, reveals the house transformed (ingeniously by set designer Daniel Ostling, with sympathetic help from lighting designer Allen Lee Hughes). Spray-painted graffiti scream from the crumbling walls, a handsome oak bannister has been replaced by a metal rail, the place is a wreck.
Which is fine by Steve (Shamos) and Lindsey (Parisse), the upwardly mobile white couple who plan to tear it down anyway. They want to replace it with a Mcmansion -- complete, in case you don’t get the message, with a koi pond.
Their inevitable visitors from the neighborhood association are intent on convincing them to “respect the memory” of the neighborhood. When Steve is affronted by the not-so-subtle impugning of their ethics, Lena (Dickinson) responds, “No, what we’re questioning is your taste.”
Being no fan of McMansions, I particularly liked that smack down. But it doesn’t quite parallel the situation of Act I. Like it or not, that koi pond is probably going to increase everyone’s property values, Lena’s included.
Whether you think that makes “Clybourne Park” more subtle than a simple tract play -- as last year’s Pulitzer board would seem to have decided -- will determine how much you get out of it.
Under Pam MacKinnon’s seamless direction, there are remarkable performances from actors who have been living in their dual roles since the play’s off-Broadway premiere two years ago.
Nevertheless, I still found “Clybourne Park” a confused work. Norris has a fine ear for dialogue, but muddled dramaturgy. A melodramatic backstory concerning a son’s suicide and a buried trunk seems tacked on and some of the repartee -- notably arguments about capital cities in the first act that are echoed in the second -- undermine the otherwise naturalistic storytelling.
But as parts of Harlem today are claimed by wealthy white families on the hunt for bargain fixer-uppers, the debate over the meaning of “neighborhood” is surely of the moment. Just take a walk around my block.
At the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com. Rating: **1/2
What the Stars Mean: **** Do Not Miss *** Excellent ** Good * So-So (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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