We know that guy, the guy in the living-room chair, spooning ice cream straight from the container. Of course, we're well-acquainted with the actor in the chair, the deft David Fritts, but we know that guy — the guy sitting in a house in Chicago, in Clybourne Park. This is Russ, and it doesn't take long to understand what's put him in that chair.
Setting the stage in this show at the Unicorn Theatre (a coproduction with UMKC Theatre) is that ice cream: Neapolitan — the three separate flavors mixing with each spoonful. Russ and his wife, Bev (portrayed with humor and sensitivity by Jennifer Mays), wonder aloud at the origin of the dessert's name: Neapolitan. This would seem an esoteric exercise if not for the clever dialogue, which shows us these characters' need to categorize all things and all people (including themselves) and the appropriate placement of each in the world.
Russ and Bev are preparing to move from their attractive bungalow, with its dark woodwork and front bay window (set design by Brett Engle), a home where a terrible sadness has overtaken them. It's 1959, and Russ, still not dressed for the day, sits in that chair as Bev, in June Cleaver attire, packs up the china. Lending a hand is the hired help, Francine (conveyed walking a sometimes uncomfortable fine line by Janae Mitchell).
This neighborhood will start to see the fine lines of its façade crack. It's a place where what you eat and whether you ski are differentials that accompany skin color and creed. This 2010 play by Bruce Norris won both a Tony Award for Best Play and a Pulitzer Prize for drama. The dialogue is quick yet deep, and the playwright's ear for natural conversation — sometimes more than one at a time — is keen. Directed here by Joseph Price, Clybourne Park is filled with humor and a kind of horror — in a foot-in-mouth way. The actors expertly animate these folks with emotional nuance while steering away from stereotype.
We've no doubt observed, even experienced, some of this before. Russ and Bev and their community look like the one we know, a place shaped by white flight and the eventual gentrification of older neighborhoods close to the city's core. But in this play, as in life, the personal becomes political — "You can't live in a principle," we hear.
Clybourne Park picks up where Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun leaves off (though knowing her play isn't a prerequisite for appreciating this one). This is the house that Raisin's black family bought, and Karl Lindner (the talented Brian Paulette) is the neighborhood rep who had tried to convince them not to move. So here, in Act 1, he heads instead to Russ and Bev's, ready to persuade them to withdraw from the deal. It's about property values after all, isn't it?
Karl has brought along his hearing-impaired wife, Betsy (convincingly and charmingly depicted by Jessalyn Kincaid), who is about-to-pop pregnant and can't text him in 1959. In attendance as well are Albert (the skillful Mykel Hill), Francine's husband, who has come to pick up his wife; and Jim (Michael Pauley, excellent), a neighbor who has stopped by to visit with Russ. What unfolds is uncomfortable and cringingly recognizable. We're drawn to this multilayered near-fracas where offensiveness occurs by a matter of degree.
In Act 2, things get flipped, and we're not just talking houses. Fast-forward 50 years: same domicile, same — well, not-so-same — neighborhood, and same actors but in different roles. A white couple (Paulette and Kincaid), also expecting, now want to buy this property and rebuild, and a black couple (Hill and Mitchell), representing the neighborhood association, have some concerns, one of which might just be those property values. (Mays and Pauley return as the clients' respective business reps, and Fritts is hilarious as a contractor.)
It comes as no surprise when, despite the passage of time, interracial relationships still need renovation. These sometimes awkward discussions partly mirror 1959, but we're also laughing at our collective modern selves.
Norris' Clybourne Park earned its accolades. And the production onstage at the Unicorn Theatre is fast-moving and intelligent, an entertaining reminder of our culture's racial dysfunction — and our inability to work through it.