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‘Clybourne Park’ mixes politics, awkward humor in its dramatic stew

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(Paul Fraughton | The Salt Lake Tribune) The cast of Pioneer Theater's production of "Clybourne Park" seated front left: Brian Normoyle, standing: Kasey Mahaffy, in blue: Erika Rose, back: Celeste Ciulla, front: Tarah Flanagan, and, standing: David Manis. Monday, February 4, 2013

By Ben Fulton

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Feb 09 2013 01:01AM
Updated May 21, 2013 11:32PM

Writer Jean Rhys wrote her most famous work, the 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea, based on Charlotte Brontë’s madwoman in the attic from Jane Eyre. Thousands of writers since — see E.L. James’ phenomenal success with Fifty Shades of Grey — have reimagined other writers’ characters into their own.

It was only a matter of time, then, before the practice hit the theater world. When it did, few would have guessed the result would win the 2010 London Critics Circle for Best New Play, the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play the next year. Few, if any, contemporary playwrights manage to hit it out of the ball park like that.

From 1959 to 2009 • Taking Lorraine Hansberry’s celebrated 1959 drama "A Raisin in the Sun" as its starting point, Texas-bred, and Chicago-based playwright Bruce Norris brought to life "Raisin’s" white family, the married couple Bev and Russ. They are selling their home in Chicago’s Clybourne Park neighborhood to Hansberry’s African-American Younger family.

Then, flashing forward to 2009, Norris brings to life white couple Steve and Lindsey, out to buy the same home from a black family, then level it for new construction. Like the Younger family in Hansberry’s play, they come up against a neighborhood organization out to stymie their ambitions.

To top it off, every actor in the play’s first act plays a different character in the second act. The play, aptly titled "Clybourne Park," isn’t just a theater maven’s exercise in connecting plotlines across playwrights and decades. It’s also a full menu of acting challenges.

If all that sounds a bit dizzying, don’t let it put you off. Like a heady cocktail with exotic ingredients, Norris’ work falls neatly into place, but with its own distinct and bewildering aftertaste.

Even if you’re unfamiliar with Hansberry’s play, "Clybourne Park" works well enough on its own, said Timothy Douglas, guest director for the Utah premiere of the play at Pioneer Theatre Company, which runs Feb. 15 through March 2.

Beyond just black and white • The Pulitzer committee may have summarized "Clybourne Park" as an incisive look into "America’s sometimes toxic struggle with race and class consciousness," but it’s also more than just a drama about race.

"It’s only a play about race because it has black and white people on the stage at the same time," Douglas said. "I prefer to think of it as a play about rhetoric and cultural sensitivities in which individuals in the audience get the chance to weigh in on themselves. Pardon the pun, but not all issues in the play are black and white."

No, they’re not. Among the Midwest theater intelligentsia, Norris is known for his acerbic, biting way with dialogue. It’s a brand of humor almost every cast member of Pioneer Theatre Company’s production describes as Ricky Gervais-like, thanks to its power to make people laugh out loud, but also cringe inwardly given its awkward delivery.

"It would be a trap to simply play the script for its humor, but [director Douglas] is making it safe for us to plumb it to its depths," said Celeste Ciulla, who plays Bev in the play’s first act and Kathy, a fierce real-estate attorney, in the second. "It’s kicking my butt, but I’m really proud of our work."

Of side-plots and assorted devices • Tarah Flanagan, who plays Betsy, a deaf woman, in the first act and Lindsey in the second, said the humor acts as a seal on Norris’ themes of deep anxiety people experience when they confront difficult situations. "If you didn’t have the humor to take tension out of the air, it would all be really hard to take," Flanagan said. "I’m glad it’s there. It invites people into the play."

"Clybourne Park" isn’t without side-plots and assorted devices. Bev and Russ, owners of the home in 1959, grappled with a tragedy involving their son, a veteran of the Korean War. There’s a mysterious something buried deep in the yard. Jim, a minister in the first act played by Kasey Mahaffy, talks on and on even if another character in the first act, Betsy, can’t hear.

More than a play about race, Norris’ script works on the powerful emotions unleashed once the parameters of a person’s tribe and territory are called into question. "The biggest challenge is keeping its discourse above the belt," the director said. "Hopefully, with the treatment we give [the play], you can hear it all — and it won’t sound hysterical."

bfulton@sltrib.com

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