Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Okay, okay, here are my thoughts on Clybourne Park (Part 2 of a series)

Work of art or house of mirrors?  The SpeakEasy version of Clybourne Park.  Photo(s): Craig Bailey.

Every single theatre acquaintance I've bumped into over the past month has asked me the same question:

"When are you going to write about Clybourne Park???"

Sometimes people said,  "You are going to write about Clybourne Park, aren't you?" or "You didn't already write about Clybourne Park, did you?" or "I didn't miss it, did I?"

A few emails simply cut to the chase: "Clybourne Park?" was all they said.

But no, you haven't missed it - even though I did already write in depth about Clybourne, in a widely noted review of Trinity Rep's savage production last year.  But I understood that I had to write about it again - people were actually yearning for it.  For one thing, everyone knows I'm the only writer in Boston who dares to write honestly about questions of race in the theatre - plus I'm one of only a few local critics with any insight into dramatic mechanics. Those points were particularly salient because the vast majority of my friends, it seemed, were hesitantly trying to vocalize a common feeling they were hoping I would validate. As one put it:

"It seems like a really good play.  But it really isn't, is it."

And what can I say?  You're all quite right.  Clybourne Park seems like a really good play - but it isn't, not really.  Instead, it is an "important" play - and there's a big difference between an important play and a good play.

Still, the SpeakEasy Stage production (which recently closed) was undeniably a strong one - it honored the work's "importance" in an astutely dignified way, and often - but not always - disguised its flaws. That is what it was designed to do, and it clearly succeeded in its objective.  (It certainly snookered almost all the Boston critics.)  The Trinity Rep production was in a way more intriguing - it cast the play as polemic - in effect a sardonic riposte to Hansberry's text, or at least its comfortable, classic status; and thus it sank its teeth into the dark snark at the core of Bruce Norris's authorial tone.  The trouble was, this led to a dead end, because Norris doesn't really complete any kind of artistic or politic arc in his action, and the buried "secret" driving his plot feels like a complete non sequitur to his racial themes.  Thus after a roaring act-and-a-half, the Trinity Rep version abruptly ran out of steam, and sputtered to a frustrating stop - which led me to wonder whether the mainstream "race play" was already "written out."

But at SpeakEasy Stage, director Bevin O'Gara was - well, cannier in manner and method, although it has crossed my mind that she may have actually been simply disinterested in the script's political particulars.  To her, you felt, Clybourne Park operated as kind of figurehead, like one of those bare-busted ladies on the prow of a ship, for a certain theatrical movement of which she sees herself as avatar; its individual features or flaws were of secondary concern.  Indeed, it was mounted as an indirect companion piece to the simultaneous revival of A Raisin in the Sun (from which its plot is derived) at the Huntington (where O'Gara works as an associate producer). And given that production's rather sentimentalized tone, clearly what counted was that Clybourne convey a vaguely progressive posture despite itself (indeed even though it often feels like a sarcastic shrug of despair).

Thus O'Gara's was a kinder, gentler Clybourne Park -  a transformation which she effected by making it an actor's Clybourne Park, focused on sympathetic, naturalistic detail rather than debate (after all, O'Gara, and SpeakEasy Stage, just don't do debate). This approach was somewhat compromised by the fact that a key role in the production was miscast; but the actor in question, Thomas Derrah, is so technically skillful that this issue, like so many in the script itself, was successfully disguised.

Of course O'Gara's version inevitably stalled, too, like Trinity's - although so much more slowly and subtly that I think many observers never even felt themselves drifting to a stop. Perhaps more importantly, it was pushed into rough alignment with Raisin, its source material  - indeed (in a move that made you wonder about some level of meta-collusion between the two directors) the Huntington's Liesl Tommy brought onstage the ghost of the deceased patriarch whose death kick-starts the plot of Raisin - as if to openly reference the dead son who haunts Clybourne.

But do those particular reflections really make sense (even if they're what Bruce Norris had in mind)? Probably not - indeed, I'd argue Tommy's gentle but forced gesture violated Hansberry's intents, and the suggested parallels with Clybourne were just fuzzy anyway.  Thus inevitably, more discerning theatre-goers left both productions with the troubling sense that they'd been  - well, slightly hoodwinked.  And in a way they had; Raisin and Clybourne are opposed, not parallel, works.  One (Raisin) is far greater than the other, but oddly, the weaker play attempts to undo the optimism of the stronger; and any attempt to suggest that they orbit each other in the way that Norris's two time frames do in Clybourne is (I think) an inherently misguided strategy.

What's past is prologue in Clybourne Park.
Of course perhaps all this is simple coincidence. And to be fair, O'Gara's approach had one great virtue: it drew out the incredible detail that Norris has worked into his mirrored diptych of two eras, and the modes in which racism was and is secretly honored, but officially denied, in each (the approach is neatly summed up in the photoshopped "mirror" of two sets of characters, at left).

Still, this mirroring should really only be a means toward an end - and it's that end, that climax, that's missing from Clybourne Park.  Yes, racism has survived A Raisin in the Sun, and even the Civil Rights Act - but in what form, really, has it done so? That, you feel, is the question that would have pre-occupied Lorraine Hansberry, had she not been taken from us at such an early age - and while Norris nods toward it, he seems unwilling to answer it.  Instead, the playwright lets his many reflections take over, and Clybourne Park becomes a house of mirrors rather than a work of art.

But if Clybourne Park isn't actually a work of art, is it at least an interesting cultural artifact, a kind of unconscious aesthetic symptom? This is an intriguing argument, and one that the rapturous critical reception to O'Gara's production seems to validate.  And which I'll consider more deeply in the third part of this series.

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