White flight circa 1959 and urban gentrification five decades later fuel Bruce Norris’s button-pushing, political-correctness-be-damned comedy Clybourne Park, winner of both the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play, the finest production I’ve seen at Laguna Playhouse and one of the year’s very best.
Taking as its inspiration Lorraine Hansberry’s 20th-century classic A Raisin In The Sun, Clybourne Park imagines what might have happened following Neighborhood Improvement Association representative Karl Linder’s (Christian Pedersen) return to the titular Chicago neighborhood with news of his failure to convince a downtown-dwelling African-American family not to integrate his lily-white community by moving into 406 Clybourne Street.
Not that home sellers Russ and Bev Stoller (JD Cullum and Heather Ayers) seem all that put out by the news. Indeed, they’re more upset to have Karl and his pregnant deaf wife Betsy (Jennifer Cannon) and Pastor Jim (Bryan Porter) show up uninvited on the day their black housekeeper Francine (Jennifer Shelton) and her husband Albert (Jay Donnell) are helping them pack things up for the movers.
Playwright Norris takes his deliberate time in revealing what Russ and Bev have been forced to endure these past few years from their flag-waving, empathy-lacking neighbors, the writer getting things rolling with so much laughter, you’d swear you were watching a classic 1950s live-audience, multiple-camera sitcom.
Had Norris opted to end Clybourne Park at intermission, audiences would be left with a brief, nostalgic if at times acerbic look at how far pre-Civil Rights America had to go in ensuring life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness regardless of color, and we might even exit the theater feeling pleased with ourselves at how much progress has been made since Lorraine Hansberry’s Youngers moved from urban squalor to the comforts of Clybourne Park.
Instead, we get to meet Steve and his pregnant wife Lindsey (Pedersen and Cannon), whose plans circa 2009 to not only renovate but redesign the now worse-than-rundown Younger home have raised the ire of Neighborhood Association reps Kevin (Donnell) and Lena (Shelton), the latter named after the great-aunt who desegregated Clybourne Park till the whites flew away.
Completing the soon-to-be incendiary mix are Steve and Lindsey’s lawyer Kathy (Ayers), who happens to be Betsy and Karl’s adult daughter, Kevin and Lena’s GWM lawyer Tom (Porter), and handyman Dan (Cullum).
The half-century between 1959 and 2009 may have seen the March on Washington, the Civil Rights Act, Loving v. Virginia, and at least superficial progress towards racial equality, but as Act Two makes uncomfortably and uproariously clear, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” with Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream still seemingly lifetimes away.
In the meantime down at Laguna Playhouse, Matt August directs the 2017-2018 season closer with electrifying power and punch, eliciting fourteen rip-roaring performances from his septet of L.A. theater pros.
Ayers’ ditzy but deep Bev and her texting-obsessed Kathy, Cullum’s cranky, cantankerous Russ and his easygoing if underused handyman Dan, Porter’s folksy midwestern Jim and his Boys’ Town-ready Tom, and Cannon’s sweet but clueless Betsy and “Half my friends are black” Lindsey are all gems, Pedersen gets to be a well-meaning jerk not once but twice as Karl and Steve, and SoCal musical theater stars Shelton and Donnell’s Francine and Albert reveal the many ways mid-20th Century “Negroes” strove not to rock the racial boat, while their 21st Century counterparts Lena and Kevin prove considerably prouder and more outspoken.
Laguna Playhouse gives Clybourne Park a topnotch production design highlighted by D Martyn Bookwalter’s ‘50s-handsome, 00’s-ramshackle home, Ann Closs-Farley’s character-and-decade defining costumes, and (respectively) Chris Rynne’s and Mike Ritchey’s lighting and sound designs.
Casting is by Michael Donovan, CSA. Susie Walsh is production stage manager.
More relevant than ever in Trump-era America, Clybourne Park entertains and electrifies in equal measure. It may make you squirm at times, but rarely has discomfort felt more exhilarating.
The Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Through June 24. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 7:30. Thursdays and Saturdays at 2:00 and 7:30. Sundays at 1:00. Also Sunday June 17 at 5:30. No performance on Thursday, June 14 at 2:00 or Tuesday, June 19 at 7:30. Reservations: 949 497-2787
June 10, 2018