Thursday, November 16, 2023

Clybourne Park - Music Theatre of Connecticut

The Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning play, Clybourne Park, is receiving an uneven production at the Music Theatre of Connecticut (MTC).  The show, a well-constructed comedy/drama, is split into two Acts.  The first part of the play mines the field of racial attitudes from the perspective of a Black family looking to move into an all-White neighborhood.  In Act II, taking place 50 years later, the reverse is happening.  In both circumstances, playwright Bruce Norris unfurrows viewpoints and convictions that are, sadly, still prevalent today.  While segments of the MTC staging can be riveting, primarily the latter half of Act I, the show is undercut from some ineffective performances and an Act II which can be confusing and not as well-rendered.
In Act I, which takes place in 1959, we are introduced to Bev and Russ, a white, middle-class couple who reside in the Clybourne section of Chicago.  They are moving, not far away, and have sold their house to a Black couple.  Soon, their home is visited by Jim, the local priest, and neighbors Karl Lindner and his wife, Betsy.  Karl’s missions is simple – he wants to convince Bev and Russ not to sell their home, worrying about falling property values.  Tempers flare and arguments ensue about racism as well as neighborhood values and caring (Russ and Bev’s son was shunned when he returned from the Korean War).  Drawn into the fray is the homeowner’s Black housekeeper and her husband. 
In Act II, the time is now 50 years in the future.   The same cast, in different roles, are sitting in folding chairs in the decaying living room of the same home from Act I.  In the intervening years, the Clybourne section has become an all-Black neighborhood, but is now becoming gentrified.  A white couple, Steve and Lindsey, want to tear down the structure and build a larger house.  The Black couple – Lena and Kevin - from the housing board are trying to negotiate with them as the lawyers Kathy and Tom attempt to mediate the discussion, which soon becomes heated and breaks down into arguments and accusations centering on racism and political correctness.  As with Act I, the second half of the show concludes with characters exiting the stage, battered and nowhere near a resolution.
Playwright Bruce Norris has craftily constructed Clybourne Park with a nod to Lorraine Hansberry’s classic work, A Raisin in the Sun.  For example, the Black family referenced in Act I are the Youngers.  Karl, is also a character in Raisin.  In addition, Lena from the Housing Board is related to the Younger’s and doesn’t want the memory-filled home razed.  The scenes in Act I aptly capture the changes and self-generating strife white neighborhoods were undergoing.  The acrimony portrayed in Act II are, distressingly, still of the moment.  Overall, the dialog is smart, snappy and full of rancorous exchanges. 
As staged by Director Pamela Hill, the show takes some time getting into high gear but, once it does, the tension during the first half of the play is palatable in the small MTC theater.  Ms. Hill is less successful in building up to the dramatic conflicts that ended in Act I.  As the conversations begin in Act II, it was somewhat difficult understanding roles.  There was less fluidity to the flow of the action.  Sometimes performers would be talking over each other and hurrying through their lines as opposed to utilizing a more judicious use of pauses to heighten the growing hostility on stage.
Overall, the cast could have a stronger stage presence.  Many of them have a quiet fortitude, which does set the scene for the latter fireworks in both Acts I and II, but the understated portrayals lessen the power of the work.  Susan Haefner is a bit restrained in her roles of Bev/Kathy.  Frank Mastrone’s Russ is also somewhat subdued even though his underlying resentment and anger eventually erupts just before intermission.  Nick Roesler, who plays Karl in Act I, gives a powerful, full-in performance during the first half of the show.  His relentless rantings were forceful and effective.  As Steve, in Act II, while still the tempest in the teapot, his diatribes were less compelling.  Allie Seibold drifts through Act I as Betsy, but is more vocal and successful as Lindsey in the latter part of the play.  Rae Janeil is appropriately proper as the domestic, Francine, in Act I, but shows a fiery spirit as Lena in Act II.  SJ Hannah is respectful and assured as Albert in Act I, but the actor demonstrates he is not one to back away from his principles.  His portrayal of Kevin in Act II is fine, but more perfunctory.  Matt Mancuso’s portrayal of Father Jim in Act I is somewhat off for a person that should be able to handle conflict and mediation.  As the lawyer, Tom, in Act II, he is rather muted.
Scenic Designer Martin Scott Marchitto has forged two spare, but suitable sets.  For Act I, a dispiriting living room full of moving boxes; for Act II, a decaying, sparsely furnished space.
Clybourne Park, playing at the Music Theatre of Connecticut through November 19.  Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.

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