San Diego, CA------The Clybourne Park neighborhood in playwright Bruce Norris’s biting comedy is the very same neighborhood that the Younger Family of the late 1950’s, in Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun”, were about ready to move into in that groundbreaking drama so many moons ago. The Younger’s are African-American family and the Clybourne neighborhood was lily white.
Gentleman’s Agreement: An informal, pledge, understanding or agreement between parties. In the 1950’s there was a Gentleman’s Agreement in certain neighborhoods that no one would sell their home to (in those day) an African-American or a Jew.
I grew up in that world. Just as recently as the 1960’s Jews were not permitted to live in La Jolla. In my hometown of Worcester Mass. we all knew where we were not wanted. One can imagine then what it was like for a family of color to move into a neighborhood where you are the only ones who look like you.
Norris whose Pulitzer Prize and Olivier Award winning play is a scathing commentary on the attitudes of those who are about to sell and those who would like the sale to be reversed. The conversations, clashes, tensions and bickering that go on within the middle class community of Clybourne Park before the Younger’s moved in is at the center of Act I in his multi faceted look into the psyche’s of all involved.
In particular, Bev and Russ (Sandy Campbell and Mark Pinter) who are moving out to another neighborhood to make way for the Younger’s, become the object of everyone’s angst and anger. Problem is that they don’t even know to whom they are selling and they don’t care. The other problem is that everyone else does.
There’s something more going on between Bev and Russ besides the fact that they have to finish their packing to get out of the house in time for the new owners to move in. The air between them is heavy with unspoken words. Bev is over the top anxious to please and Russ is in a funk.
Their African-American maid Francine (Monique Gaffney) is about as uptight as a spring ready to spin out of control and can’t wait for her husband Albert (Matt Orduna) to pick her up and get her the hell out. In fact they are all ready to move on. She's over Bev’s condescending attitude and can’t wait to be out of her service.
The house is all packed neatly in boxes and the only thing left is the trunk in the attic that needs to be brought downstairs. Therein, we learn, is where the tragedy of their lives is buried and they too can’t wait to move on and leave that part behind them. Their son committed suicide after returning from the Korean Conflict and no one in the neighborhood seemed to give a damn. But that’s a subject Bev wants buried, instead they bury the trunk loaded with his Army gear and letters.
But Bev and Russ learn that it’s not as easy as selling a piece of property and then leaving as they might have imagined. One of their neighbors Karl (Jason Heil) and his wife (who is deaf) pay them a visit and Karl, overbearing to a fault, rants and raves about how is going to stop the sale from going through. He’s already ahead of the game with the new owners, African-American family. Karl will have nothing of it. He wants to know how Russ could have done something like that to them without even telling them.
It doesn’t get much better when the holier than thou minister Jim (Jason Maddy) shows up and begins to offer his two cents while egging Karl on and dragging Francine and Albert into the conversation. Things go from bad to worse as they shout at each other, past each other and through each other but never directly to each other. The only one not catching the ugliness of the accusations and blame is Karl’s wife Betsy (Amanda Leigh Cobb) and that’s because she can’t hear!
Up until intermission we are taken on a rollercoaster ride that doesn’t seem to be heading for a soft landing. If one has seen “Raisin in the Sun” it’s interesting to try to loop the behind the scenes antics and attitudes of those living in Clybourne Park and connect the dots to those getting ready to make the move.
In “Raisin” many in the Younger Family had their own reservations about moving into an all ‘white neighborhood’. Toward the end of Hansberry’s play, an attempt by Karl Linder a rep from the then homeowners ass. to keep the Younger’s from moving is etched into our brains as we leave Hansberry’s Younger family to finish their packing.
However in Act II there is a complete about face. Fast forward to 2009. The Clybourne property has fallen into disarray. It is overrun with graffiti of all sorts. (Robin Sanford Roberts) The walls are falling apart and pretty much, the whole house is in ruins. But… the neighborhood is making a comeback (read white) through reclamation and revitalization
Now the big quagmire (after trying to figure out what was going on for the first 15 minutes of Act II) is whether or not the new homeowners association will allow the new owners, Steve and Lindsay (Jason Heil and Amanda Leigh Cobb) to build up and ignore the city guidelines or keep the integrity of the ‘old neighborhood’. But there is more.
The one carry over from the Younger Family and the lone African-American couple is Lena (Monique Gaffney) and her husband Kevin (Matt Orduna). She is protesting tearing down the old homestead and rebuilding it to the new owners’ taste because her great aunt was Lena (for whom she was named) Younger who once lived there. Tearing down the house would erase signs of its heritage and history and she will have no part of it. If we thought things couldn’t get any worse for the Clybourne Park Community in Act I, Act II gets down and dirty and ugly.
Both acts in “Clybourne Park” share the same actors they just become different characters locked in the same clichés, the same non verbal nonsense of starting a sentence and never finishing but leaving serious and scathing implications behind. The only thing that has changed is the attitude fifty years later with seemingly a bit more sophisticated but no less malicious and nasty verbal assaults whirling around.
Norris has crafted a very funny, not ha ha funny but pitifully funny scenario, that unfortunately is reflective of the human condition that exists even today, some fifty years after the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
Director Sam Woodhouse has assembled a strong cast that together play off one another with precision and clockwork timing. Jason Heil is standout as the most vocal in both scenarios as the bully Karl in Act I who tries to stop Russ and Bev from selling their home to pretty much the same bully in Act II who now wants back into the area but with his lawyer, Tom (Jason Maddy) and own set of rules. Jason Maddy plays three different characters with just enough verve to annoy anyone within the sound of his voice.
Sandy Campbell is stunning as the wound up Bev afraid that any misstep or out of character word will send her morose husband Russ into a deeper funk is at the top of her game. Mark Pinter’s depressed Russ and his strong man type Dan the construction worker is a contrast in motion first as the depressed husband, whom we know is about ready to explode to the dynamic construction worker hell bent on opening the buried trunk he found in the back yard while digging to make a Koi pond.
Both Gaffney and Orduna do a turnabout first as the ‘don’t look at us couple, we don’t want to get involved in your mess’ to the strong voices of the save our neighborhood movement. Amanda Leigh Cobb does another about face; although pregnant in both, as the hearing impaired, happy go lucky Betsy to the haughty Lindsay in Act II.
Jennifer Braun Gittings dresses the cast in period appropriate clothes and Robin Sanford Robert’s sets reflect the changing times. Missy Bradstreet’s wigs need a makeover and Tom Jones’ sound designs are the sounds of the era.
Shortly after I moved to San Diego bumper stickers started appearing on the back bumpers of cars reading “Welcome to San Diego. Now go home”. It could have read La Jolla or Clybourne Park.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through Feb.10th
Organization: San Diego Repertory Theatre
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 79 Horton Plaza San Diego, CA 92101
Ticket Prices: $33.00-$52.00
Venue: The Lyceum Stage