Not the most eloquent way to begin a review, admittedly. But with a show this excitingly superb, you just need to get the reaction out quickly to make room for a deeper and more robust examination. Otherwise known as the actual review.
Clybourne Park, directed by Ron Jones at Dirt Dogs Theater Co., is the kind of production we all dream of seeing. A whip-smart, killer satire script, boldly directed, gorgeously designed, and boasting an ensemble cast working like a pot of boiling water – a magnificent full roiling bubble with individual hot splashes rising up to break the surface.
Written by Bruce Norris, the Pulitzer, Olivier, and Tony award-winning play bookends as both a prequel and a sequel to Lorraine Hansberry’s classic, A Raisin in the Sun, about a Black family moving into a white neighborhood in Chicago. Just like Hansberry’s play, which examined the tensions and damages of American racial inequality through the lens of home ownership, Clybourne Park also uses property as its metaphor. Only this time the racial truth-telling fires a wickedly funny arrow straight at the white homeowners in the show.
The first act takes place in the 1950s at the home of Russ (a terrifically irritated Trevor B. Cone) and Bev (Malinda L. Beckham fizzing with anxious yery vapid motor mouth) as they pack up in preparation to move. More precisely, Bev packs up, with the help of both her maid, Francine (a terrific Crystal Rae filling in the last minute and getting large laughs with her put upon reactions), and her husband Albert (a smooth but wisely wary Derrick Brent II) . Russ is in a bit of a funk and would rather sit, eat ice cream, read his National Geographic and loudly holler Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, for effect.
How Norris takes us from the couple wordily arguing over the etymology of Neapolitan ice cream, to a visit from the well-meaning priest Jim (an unhelpfully earnest Wesley Whitson), up to the entrance of the Act’s conflict enzyme, Karl (Blake Weir serving up wonderfully passive-aggressive toadiness) and his lovely deaf wife Betsy (an elegant Amanda Marie Parker), is a whirlwind feat of playwrighting.
There’s barely a chance for us to take a breath between the mile a minute, and often wonderfully overlapping dialogue that has us laughing, sorrow, and finally moving to anger when the point of the action is revealed.
Indignantly, the weaselly Karl informs Russ and Bev that it’s a “colored” family that’s bought their house. An unacceptable development for the white families in the eponymous neighborhood. They won’t fit in, Karl maintains. What if they can’t find their food in our grocery store and what if they don’t ski? You let one of them in and who knows how many others will follow?
The discussion is ridiculous, cringey, funny, and all too real. And Norris lets the absurdity of the situation drive the scene to utter bedlam. No one is spared when all hell breaks loose, not even Francine and Albert who’re just trying to do their work and get the hell out of this house full of crazy/sad/angry white people.
Thanks to Jones’ controlled chaos direction, Mark A. Lewis’s expansive interior house set design (including an impressive staircase up to the rafters), and this exemplary cast who all get a turn to shine, it’s as close to a perfect Act as you can hope to see.
The good news is, while the rest of the play may not be quite as complex, Act 2 is no wallflower. Plus it gives us another chance to enjoy this cast, as they return in different roles.
The time is the 1990s and the place is the same house, now being bought and redesigned by a white couple, Lindsey (Parker, playing entitled but impressed by her wokeness) and Steve (Weir – with all the assuredness of a white guy who hasn’t ‘t a clue) looking to get in on the neighborhood just as the upward curve of gentrification sets in.
The problem is, the Black community who’s lived in the area for decades wants to maintain some of the historic neighborhood’s character they worked hard to afford and create.
That’s the reason for the meeting between Lindsey, Steve, their lawyer Kathy (a hilariously self-involved Beckham), mediator of sorts, Tom (comically frustrated Whitson), and community representatives Lena (Rae once again earning our laughs with her unspoken superlative annoyance ) and Kevin (Brent II trying to keep things cool).
All Steve and Lyndsey want is a home with several floors and a koi pond out back. Is that too much to ask for? After all, they’re paying good money and they love the neighborhood – such potential and close to work. What’s the problem, they wonder? Aren’t we all friends here?
If only they’d actually listen to Lena or maybe not start to tell racist jokes or brag about all the Black friends they have, things would go more smoothly. And then there’s the city gas line worker out back (Cone hilarious in long hair and rough around the edges manners) who keeps interrupting. And if only Kevin could just keep things breezy. Maybe then the chaos of the first act wouldn’t repeat.
But of course, Norris is ramping things up again, nailing all manners of conflicts, marital and racial, and while this time we’re ready for the explosion of outrageousness, it doesn’t make it any less uncomfortably funny.
Perhaps even more so as we can see our situation more clearly in these folks than the characters from the ’50s. We laugh at the insanity of the racial tensions as Norris intends…but the sting is far sharper.
It’s easy to think that under all Norris’ humor is nothing but cynicism. The neighbors may change, the times may change, but the simmering racism remains. And it may be the case that no light was meant to creep into the satire of this play.
But frustrated as the message here is, perhaps by taking the piss out of the bigotry, Norris is also saying in the absurd we find the answer. When a fool shows a fool his foolish behavior, maybe then some sense will come.
The best suggestion is to go find out for yourself. There’s one more weekend to see this truly excellent production. Chaos, especially racially based, is rarely this smart or instructive. Nor is it this damn funny.
Clybourne Park continues through June 11 at MATCH, 3400 Main. For more information, visit matchhouston.org or call 713-521-4533. $25.