The first act of Clybourne Park at the San Diego Rep is engrossing drama punctuated by deeply rooted pain, eruptions we don’t see coming and transgressions disguised as niceties. Personal investment in playwright Bruce Norris’ characters, both white and black, is inescapable. We care about Russ and Bev, who lost their Korean War vet son to suicide and have lost hold of their relationship as a result. They have sold their house in Clybourne Park, a fairly prosperous white neighborhood of Chicago, to a black family, and a nasty firestorm has sparked around them. We care not only because of the eloquence of Norris’ writing but also due to sublime performances from Mark Pinter as Russ and Sandy Campbell as Bev, who together bring this complex story of family, race and loss to such a moving Act 1 crescendo.
But Clybourne Park, inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (the fear-mongering character Karl Lindner is the connective thread), is really two plays in one, and the second act undermines much of the subtlety and sensitivity that preceded it. As the action shifts from Russ and Bev’s home in 1959 to the same house in disrepair and on the verge of a tear-down in 2009, Clybourne Park becomes a shout-fest all but stripped of its poignancy. The Sam Woodhouse-directed production’s cast, which besides Pinter and Campbell includes Monique Gaffney, Jason Heil, Jason Maddy, Amanda Leigh Cobb and Matt Orduna, returns in different but related roles in Act 2, but the 2009 characters pale by comparison. Clybourne Park’s discourse on good intentions, bad intentions and the racial divide does make the transition from the play’s first act to the second, but the narrative tone does a one-eighty. The delicate and important questions raised earlier are too often dressed in one-liners, exasperation and shock value.
The second act’s coda, a softly lit and ominous return to the events of 1959, is a reminder of what could have been. But then Clybourne Park is Norris’ play – his vision and his choices. The Rep is true to that vision, for which director and cast deserve due credit. For this visitor to the play’s uneasy neighborhood past and future, the disappointment lingers.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat