Race, class and real estate: In ‘Clybourne Park,’ an answer to Hansberry both comic and dead serious

The cast of 'Clybourne Park.' ()
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It's not that the characters in Clybourne Park don't know what they're talking about. It's just they don't know how to say it, or whether the rules polite discourse (or political correctness) even allow them to bring it up.

"It's race. Isn't it?" asks Steve, a white man who encounters resistance from his new neighbors after buying a house in a black suburb of Chicago. "You're trying to tell me that … that implicit in what you said … that this entire conversation … isn't at least partially informed—am I right?"

He's the only character brave enough—or maybe foolish enough—to try to clarify the topic everyone is tiptoeing around. His high-strung wife Lindsey is appalled ("Half of my friends are black!" she blurts out), his neighbor Lena is offended ("I'm fairly certain I've just been called a racist!"), and everyone else is stunned.

Turns out that Steve is only partly right. Clybourne Park, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011, is about race, but it's equally about class. The smart, astute play by Bruce Norris is mostly about our inability to discuss either topic without somebody getting defensive. Norris doesn't make any conclusions here—grand pronouncements would have seemed heavy-handed—except perhaps that what often enough passes for "enlightenment" about these subjects just as likely ruins the possibility of meaningful discussion.

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The play was written as a sort of response to Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun and presents scenes from both before and after the action of that legendary play. The action starts in 1959 as white, middle-aged Bev and Russ are packing up their things in preparation to leave Clybourne Park. Well, Bev is packing, with the help of the couple's black maid Francine. Russ, depressed about the suicide of his son, mostly just wants to be left alone.

Russ is roused from his stupor by the arrival of his neighbor Karl, who can't quite believe that Russ and Bev would knowingly sell their home to a "colored" family. ("Sorry, don't we say Negro, now?" asks the local minister, who has also dropped by.) Karl paints a vivid picture of what will happen: one white family after another will move out, property values will drop, and the neighborhood will suffer many, many years of decline.

As repugnant as Karl reveals himself to be, especially when he goads Francine about whether she'd feel comfortable living in a white neighborhood like Clybourne Park, it turns out that he is correct. The second act opens in the same house 50 years later. It's in sorry shape—graffiti on the walls, doors off the hinges or missing altogether—but another white, middle-aged couple, Steve and Lindsey, has bought it. They plan to tear it down and build a much larger house, if they can ever satisfy the demands of neighbors like Lena who wonder what will happen to their black enclave.

Not much happens in Clybourne Park, at least in terms of plot. Norris keeps things from feeling too weighty by adding liberal doses of humor. In fact, there are very few plays on Broadway right now with as many laugh-out-loud moments as this one. Director Pam McKinnon keeps things crisp and lively, and there's a sense of forward motion even when the characters are sitting around discussing legal documents.

The cast, all from the off-Broadway production at Playwrights Horizons a couple of seasons back, is superb. Jeremy Shamos is most impressive as both Karl and Steve. Both characters do some pretty unpleasant things—Steve is goaded into telling a joke he doesn't realize has racial undertones—but Shamos makes them believable and even sympathetic. Annie Parisse, endearing as Karl's deaf wife Betsy in the first act, is hilarious as Lindsey, whose defensiveness when her very short list of black friends includes a co-worker ends up in a dark laugh line when she insists, "She was at the baby shower, Steve! I hope she's not my enemy!"

The birdlike Christina Kirk plays desperate housewife Bev in the first act and instigating lawyer Kathy in the second, and is very funny in both roles. Crystal A. Dickinson is subtle and effective as Francine, the maid who suffers fools, but not so gladly. Accomplishing so much with a furrowed brow and defeated demeanor, Frank Wood brings a sadness to Russ that is ultimately very touching.

Clybourne Park is playing at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue. Tickets are available at 212-239-6200 or at www.telecharge.com.