Posts Tagged ‘Playwrights Horizons’

Theater Review: Clybourne Park

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

Note: See the end of this review for a discount code for tickets to Clybourne Park.

At nearly 40, Playwrights Horizons is such an established part of New York's not-for-profit Off-Broadway pantheon that it's easy to take it for granted and forget that it has a special mission, as indicated in its very name: to foster and develop excellent new plays and playwrights. The current production of Bruce Norris's poetically written and smartly plotted Clybourne Park bodes well for the new decade – for Playwrights Horizons, at least, if not for the chances of fundamental change in race relations in America.

Two clever ideas root the play. First, Mr. Norris looks back half a century to Lorraine Hansberry's iconic A Raisin in the Sun, about an upwardly mobile black family – and depicts the other side. A white family in a lily-white, primly racist middle class neighborhood have sold their house to a black family, eliciting resistance, first euphemistic and then raw, from the community embodied by the deliciously sleazy Karl (the effective Jeremy Shamos, seen recently as the cautious priest in Creature).

Badly damaged by the death of their war-veteran son, angry and repressed Russ (Frank Wood, who won a Tony for Side Man) and Bev (the superb Christina Kirk, who did fine work in the excellent Telethon last year) are packing up and leaving the neighborhood behind, along with, they hope, their sorrows. Bev is a quintessential 1959 period piece, a liberal-minded woman who believes intellectually in the equality of the races and takes pride in her "friendship" with her black housekeeper Francine (the quietly explosive Crystal A. Dickinson), but still talks down to Francine and her husband Albert (the smoldering Damon Gupton) without being aware of it.

The play's second original conceit is setting the second act 50 years later, in the present time, with the same actors playing different roles. Now they are a batch of youngish people haggling over what initially seem like trivial details of the design of a new house. The couple who want to tear down and rebuild are white, the couple who object are black, and the ties to the story of 50 years earlier slowly materialize as this much faster paced, funnier, but ultimately equally powerful second half progresses. By the time a contractor (played by an utterly transmogrified Mr. Wood) digs up the old trunk Russ had buried in the yard and plops the baggage of the ages literally on center stage, we've seen just how the ugliness of America's never-ending racial "conversation" has transformed over the decades – transformed, but hardly died down. Aided by Pam MacKinnon's commendably transparent direction and fine performances all around, Mr. Norris has dramatized his perceptive view of these changes (and lack thereof) with wit, skill, and heart.

It would seem a little dull of me not to put Clybourne Park in a bit of contemporary perspective, given that I've recently covered two other major plays on the subject of race. David Mamet's Race is minor Mamet, effective as far as it goes, and with some very worthwhile performances; yet after chewing over its provocations, one comes away feeling that one hasn't heard anything much really new. More satisfying all-around is The Good Negro, which I saw this winter in a very good Boston production. That play, however, is constructed (and was directed) in a consciously artful manner. Clybourne Park never feels self-conscious; it deals with larger-than-life issues with compelling life-sized characters and naturalistic dialogue – the hardest kind to write.  It's a marvelous accomplishment.

Clybourne Park runs at Playwrights Horizons through March 7. See below for a discount code.

Photos by Joan Marcus. 1) L to R: Damon Gupton, Crystal A. Dickinson, Annie Parisse, Jeremy Shamos. 2) L to R: Christina Kirk, Frank Wood.


Blogcritics reader discount: Use code "CPGR"
Limit 4 tickets per order. Subject to availability.

Order by February 21 with code CPGR and tickets are only:
$40 (reg. $65) for all performances Jan 29-Feb 14
$50 (reg. $65) for all performances Feb 16-March 7
Order online at www.playwrightshorizons.org. Use code CPGR.
Or:
Call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 (Noon-8pm daily)
Or:
Print this page and present it at the Ticket Central box office, 416 West 42nd Street (Noon-8pm daily).

Theater Review: THIS by Melissa James Gibson at Playwrights Horizons

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

Human interaction is a complex, intuitional, frequently absurd jumble of conversation, innuendo, and the unspoken. At the same time, it's broadly predictable: people we know well will seldom surprise us, so that it's memorable when they do.

Dealing with this dual nature of communication is a major challenge for a playwright who wishes to craft realistic dialogue. Generally such a writer wants to dramatize important events in the lives of her characters, while at the same time making the minutiae of their interactions convincingly real. She must accomplish all this with characters known only to her, since we the audience have just met them; without the benefit of the elevated, concentrated language of poetry; and yet in a short period of time. Melissa James Gibson, author of the award-winning [sic], meets this essential challenge of tone, pace, and content nearly perfectly in her new play THIS.

The story skeleton is pretty standard: four friends in their late 30s, three straight and one gay, deal with major life events, catalyzed by infidelity and an exotic new acquaintance. The glory is in the details. Jane's (Julianne Nicholson) husband died a year ago, leaving her with a school-age daughter. Her friend Marrell (Eisa Davis), a brand-new mom herself, has in mind to break Jane out of her widowy slump by introducing her to handsome Jean-Pierre (Louis Cancelmi), a French "Doctor Without Borders."

Meanwhile Marrell's marriage to Tom (Darren Pettie), already troubled, has grown shakier and sexless with the arrival of their new baby. After a party in which a parlor game goes hilariously, frightfully wrong, Tom reveals longstanding feelings for Jane in a brilliantly composed and delivered speech. The "real" game is afoot.

Gibson plays games with our expectations throughout. The rules of the parlor game – so the friends tell Jane, who doesn't like games – are simple, but she objects: "You make them sound simple, which means they're not." That seems a suitable watchword for life, and certainly for this realistically messy tale. Alan (Glenn Fitzgerald) is the gay, single friend whose sexual orientation is the one aspect of his character that isn't "otherizing." (The "annoying" gay friend is hardly the sitcom stereotype.) Alan (with his "dormant Judaism"), Tom, and Jane are white, while Marrell is black, but race comes up only in unexpected yet biting bits.

Everyone has some otherness to submerge or nurse. The four friends met in college, but Tom, the one who works with his hands, was an employee there, not a student. When Marrell confesses to Jane her marital unhappiness, she mentions the lack of sex, but also that "Tom stopped voting… I don't know him anymore." That sort of loose bit of information, like Jean-Pierre's funny phone call scene, doesn't really go anywhere or even make perfect sense, but reveals character while touching on the layer of absurdity that's a part of everything we do to and with one another.

Thanks to Alan's gift of perfect recall, we have a mechanism for seeing through the veils of interpretation different characters pull over the same events. One small imperfection is the self-consciousness of the scene in which we see Alan performing his mnemonic act, introducing us to this important plot point. But creating a character with this ability was an inspired twist.

A sixth character is Louisa Thompson's vast, jumbled set, which in its fullness represents Tom and Marrell's homey loft apartment. Overhung with a huge skylight panel, its large size, lived-in clutter, and two levels echo the complexity of the lives Gibson splatters before us. It's telling that the whole thing fades away (Matt Frey's lighting is very effective) for a sparkling closing scene in which Jane, having at last shaken off some of her burden of grief, addresses her sleeping child in the latter's bedroom. Despite its broad canvas the play is full of such moments: the lonely rattling sound emanating from a wooden bowl cum baptismal font after Marrell learns she's been cheated on; Tom placing the baby monitor on Marrell's piano and returning grimly to his cabinetmaking; Alan helping Jane on with the coat whose broken zipper she hasn't bothered to fix; Jane's sad, broken metaphor, "the wolf is never away from the door, the wolf is the door."

Daniel Aukin, who also directed [sic], does beautiful work here with his superb cast. I'm a firm believer that if you don't notice the direction, the director has done a good job, and just about every scene here feels natural, though powerfully staged at appropriate moments.

THIS continues at Playwrights Horizons through Dec. 13. Order by Nov. 25 with the code THGR to get tickets for only $50 (reg. $65). To order, visit www.playwrightshorizons.org or call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200, open daily noon-8:00 pm.

Photo by Joan Marcus.