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Review: Cast delivers humor, discomfort in 'Clybourne Park' production

| Friday, April 26, 2013, 8:57 p.m.
Pittsburgh Public Theater
Chandra Thomas and Lynne Wintersteller in Pittsburgh Public Theater's 'Clybourne Park'
Pittsburgh Public Theater
Megan Hill and Tim McGeever in Pittsburgh Public Theater's 'Clybourne Park.'

What makes the characters in “Clybourne Park” so fascinating is that they are simultaneously funny and cringe-worthy.

That's to be expected as playwright Bruce Norris' drama tackles the nation's touchiest, most enduring issue — racism — and spares no one in the process.

Following its Broadway debut, “Clybourne Park” won the theatrical equivalent of the Triple Crown by winning the 2012 Tony Award for best play, the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for drama and the 2011 Olivier Award for best new play.

The play takes place in one house, but in two acts separated by a half century.

The first act takes place in 1959, as a white husband and wife moving to the suburbs after a family tragedy create neighborhood turmoil by unknowingly selling the house to a black family.

Act 2 takes place in 2009, as a yuppie couple is in the midst of renovating the house in what has become a predominately black neighborhood ripe for gentrification.

Each act could easily be mistaken as a separate one-act play.

But Norris ties them together with a cast of actors who play different characters in each act as well as a common theme and subtle verbal cues.

He chose the title of the play and the address of the house — 406 Clybourne Ave. — deliberately. It's the house that the black Younger family was moving to in Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play, “A Raisin in the Sun.”

Each and every one of the characters sees him or herself as a person of good will, whether they're trying to give their black maid a silver chafing dish she clearly doesn't want or the couple who can't understand why erecting a McMansion in a neighborhood of modest bungalows might be offensive to longtime residents.

It's not just racism that Norris addresses. Other ghosts of economic, social, mental and sexual intolerance also surface. Despite the politically correct platitudes, we've all become more prickly, outspoken, self-centered and assertive.

In both acts, characters erupt with profanity. Also, there are a couple of jokes exchanged in the second act that are deliberately offensive.

Director Pamela Berlin and the Pittsburgh Public Theater have given it a first-rate production that involves the audience emotionally and intellectually.

Each of the cast of seven demonstrates talent and subtlety as they create completely different personalities for their characters. At various points, you find yourself supporting, and then made uncomfortable by, a character's actions or point of view.

Costume designer Suzanne Chesney provides period and contemporary outfits that help anchor the acts in different times and offer clues to the characters who wear them.

Scenic designer Michael Schweikardt tackles the immense problem of turning the neatly decorated 1959 house into the dilapidated wreck that's being renovated in 2009.

The crew provides a captivating performance as they effect the labor-intensive, carefully choreographed transformation during intermission.

Ultimately, “Clybourne Park” demonstrates that we may have moved on, but we haven't necessarily improved.

The conversation continues. But it's difficult to communicate when everyone is shouting and no one is listening.

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

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