At The Stanley until Oct. 7
Tickets: 604-687-1644, artsclub.com
It’s not often a play really gets up my nose, but this one does. A playwright who gets laughs at the expense of a hearing and speech-impaired character isn’t worthy of the Pulitzer Prize that he won in 2011, and the Tony and the Olivier Prize in 2012, all for Clybourne Park. As far I can see, the only reason Betsy (Sasa Brown) is deaf is so the playwright can make fun of Bev (Deborah Williams) who shouts when talking to her and later Russ (Andrew Wheeler) who yells at her with impunity, “F**k you, Betsy.” She doesn’t lip-read? This is funny? Playwright Bruce Norris too often goes for cheap laughs.
There are some really funny moments in this play, however, many of which come from Daren Herbert (Albert/Kevin) who, along with Marci T. House (Francine/Lena), are amongst the few who aren’t sent up so far they appear, most of the time, to have only one dimension. Make that half a dimension.
Poor Williams who’s so capable an actor but who, in this play, sounds and looks like Betty Crocker on uppers. She works very hard and sometimes succeeds in showing the real grief this soldier’s mother feels. As Russ, if not in his alternate role as Dan, Wheeler comes off better; he’s almost believable as the angry father his character is.
Act 1 takes place in the mostly white Clybourne Park suburb of Chicago in 1959. Neighbours of Russ and Bev are outraged that the couple is selling their house to black Americans. It’s a nasty there-goes-the-neighbourhood protest led by Rotarian Karl (Robert Moloney) backed up by the hypocritical cleric Jim (Sebastien Archibald).
In Act 2, 50 years later, the neighbourhood is now all black—as foretold by Karl—and a white couple is planning to move in. The black American neighbours, just as intolerant as the white Americans in Act 1, have hired a lawyer to ensure the neighbourhood’s “black heritage” is preserved. The realistic house interior (designed by Ted Roberts) of Act 1 is now empty and appears to be in a state of renovation.
There’s so much filler: long, stupid arguments over the capital of Morocco, the pleasures of Prague and travel, bylaws restricting restoration/renovation. I’ll grant the line, “The history of America is the history of housing,” resonates equally well here in Vancouver. But, in an effort to show how shallow these people are, they bored me.
Well into the play, in my notes, I double-underlined Francine’s line, “Excuse me, but what are we doing here?” My thought exactly. When is Clybourne Park going to come out of park and get into gear?
Buried deep, deep into the play is a profound question: how do parents cope with the suicide of a son compelled during combat to commit atrocities? Does a so-called Christian society embrace that couples’ grief or does it shun them? This part of the story becomes merely backstory to the twice-told, “There goes the neighbourhood.”
I don’t know if director Janet Wright could have pulled back on the over-the-top performances or strived for a more consistent style across the board. This is a skilled, committed cast giving it everything it has. The problems are, I think, in Norris’s script.
Most of the opening nighters, however, loved it. And some theatre people whom I respect think Clybourne Park is “brilliant.”
Perhaps, daunted by the Vancouver real estate scene, many of us would be happy to be able to afford to live in any neighbourhood within a two-hour commute of the city and furthermore, as Canadians, can’t get exercised over the black/white issue.