In “Clybourne Park,” Bruce Norris speaks to that thing people always say about a house with a lot of history: “If these walls could only talk.” When the play opens in Chicago in 1959, the modest home in a nice neighborhood that a white couple has just sold to a black family (think “A Raisin in the Sun”) is already burdened with one dark secret. That secret will resurface in 2009, when a white couple prepares to move into the now-run-down old house in what has become a black neighborhood. But while the walls do talk, they don’t speak with any real strength of conviction.
Norris (“The Pain and the Itch”) establishes a terrific setup for a play about the complex social prejudices — some sly and subtle, others blunt and blatantly cruel — that knit communities together and drive out non-conformists. But it takes him forever (in stage time, more than half an hour) to reveal the circumstances under which moody Russ (Frank Wood, solid as a rock) and near-hysterical Bev (the technically inventive Christina Kirk) have become neighborhood pariahs, to the point of selling their comfortable home and crawling out of town.
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Once the truth comes out, it turns out not to have much to do with the racial prejudice that surfaces when friends and neighbors — given top-drawer perfs by Brendan Griffin, Jeremy Shamos and Annie Parisse — come to call. The arguments about race are heated and humorous under Pam MacKinnon’s crisp and lucid helming, but the lack of nuance in the characters’ simplistic thoughts and language limits the level of discussion.
When act two opens, 50 years later, the house in Clybourne Park has been sold again, this time to Steve (Shamos) and his pregnant wife Lindsey (Parisse), a clean-cut young white couple who represent the first wave of gentrification encroaching on the now-black neighborhood.
The atmosphere is initially very civilized as the new owners, the former owners, and their respective real-estate agents convene in the shabby living room for the closing. But the social veneer quickly slips, once the old racial attitudes begin to surface.
Crystal A. Dickinson, who played a self-effacing maid in act one, sets off the sparks as Lena, the homeowner who picks up the white condescension in the room and isn’t shy about showing her resentment. Shamos has his moment when Steve throws fuel on the flame by insisting they stop “this elaborate little dance” and admit they’re all seething underneath. With passions running high, not even the blase broker played with such amusing insouciance by Kirk can keep her cool.
But by this time, the humor feels hollow. All due credit to Norris for setting up this wrestling match and priming his characters for a smackdown. But in the end, insults are no substitute for insights.