Clybourne Park was the winner of the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play, so naturally I had to see it. Unlike the somewhat disappointing The Lyons, I can comfortably recommend this production even if you do have to pay for tickets.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t have some complaints, of course.
The two-act play focuses on racial conflict surrounding a house in the late 1950s, and again fifty years later in the new millennium. In a unique twist, many of the actors from Act One portray completely different characters in Act Two, though you’ll see plenty of parallels between the two acts.
That’s the real message of the story — things change, but things stay the same.
In Act One, we witness a white neighborhood’s dismay when they realize that a black family is moving in. Neighbors’ reactions start off civil and delicately worded, but the underlying racism and ignorance quickly crawls its way out from behind the facade of allegedly good intentions.
In Act Two, that same house has fallen into disrepair over the decades, and the neighborhood is now predominantly black with a history of drugs and crime. A young white couple is looking to tear down the house and build a beautiful new home in its place, which would be visibly out of place in the run-down neighborhood.
One complaint that I have to voice about Act Two is that the character development is sorely lacking. I’m honestly not clear who some of the characters are or why they’re in the scene. In Act One each character has a clear role to play not only in the theme but in the scene itself, whereas in Act Two the roles seem much more defined by how each person is supposed to react along the spectrum of black vs. white.
Regardless, Clybourne Park is a show in which our objective is to observe the conversations progress in both acts, as they range from inane chit-chat to heated revelations of what speakers really think. And in keeping with the theme of parallels, the arc is virtually the same in both acts. In some cases, the tables turn, and some dialogue is duplicated but used in opposite context.
This is where the show is both fantastic and infuriating. When the dialogue is good, it’s magnificent. The gradual devolution from thinly veiled civility to us-vs.-them is fascinating, and beautifully handled. But the first fifteen minutes of each act are maddeningly pointless — we are literally watching them kill time on stage, and doing so doesn’t really introduce us to the characters or set up anything meaningful on the horizon.
Somehow the banality at the beginning of Act Two was easier for me to accept than that at the beginning of Act One. Maybe that’s because it was a familiar pattern by then, or because I was busy observing the parallels to the opening of the first act. Still, my complaint remains: it wasn’t a good use of the characters’ time, or the audience’s.
And the last three or four minutes at the end of the show was totally unnecessary. I won’t give it away, but if you do see it (or already have) I’d love to privately discuss your opinion.
Clybourne Park was right to win such critical praise. The themes explored are powerful, and the exchanges vary from shocking to funny to moving (and yes, sometimes pointless). They could’ve made better use of the beginning sequences of each act, and one actress in particular I thought was awful in both acts, but overall it was a good piece.
I’d be remiss in my review of a dramatic and funny play about racial conflict in society if I didn’t mention the phenomenal The Submission, by Jeff Talbott. The specific themes were different — one looks at parallels of racism across generations even as its form evolves with society, while the other explores the parallels between racism and homophobia — but overall the impact from The Submission was much stronger. I enjoyed Clybourne Park, but it pales in comparison to The Submission.
Still, don’t let that detract from Clybourne Park. It’s definitely worth your time, both for its thought-provoking qualities and for the laughter and delicious outrage it produces. Go see it if you have the opportunity.