April 17, 2014

At Long Wharf: Race and real estate on a collision course

Daniel Jenkins, Alice Ripley, Melle Powers, Alex Moggridge, LeRoy McClain, Jimmy Davis and Lucy Owen in a scene from Clybourne Park, playing through June 1 at Long Wharf Theater in New Haven.

Allow one “coloured” family to move into “Clybourne Park” and the real estate value of all the lovely homes in this pearly white region will go down the tubes. That’s what playwright Bruce Norris’ character Karl (Alex Moggridge) maintains in the first act, of “Clybourne Park” which takes place in 1959.  The second act is a fast-forward to 2009 and the same home that was sold to a black family is now for sale. This time, a white couple wants to buy it; they envision the whole black neighborhood renovated into an upscale “gentrified” area. However, the black couple that now owns this home is reluctant to sell it because of its black history. The dialogue that came out of the white man’s mouth in 1959 is now, 50 years later, the same dialogue that the black man utters.

During the first act, Bev (Alice Ripley), who is selling her house to a black family, asks Karl, “In principle, don’t we all deserve to — Shouldn’t we all have the opportunity to, to, to — ?

Daniel Jenkins, Alice Ripley, Melle Powers, Alex Moggridge, LeRoy McClain, Jimmy Davis and Lucy Owen in a scene from Clybourne Park, playing through June 1 at Long Wharf Theater in New Haven.

Daniel Jenkins, Alice Ripley, Melle Powers, Alex Moggridge, LeRoy McClain, Jimmy Davis and Lucy Owen in a scene from Clybourne Park, playing through June 1 at Long Wharf Theater in New Haven.

Karl responds with: “But you can’t live in a principle, can you? Gotta live in a house.”

Thanks to director Eric Ting, who directs with clarity and insight, this play becomes the point of where “race and real estate collide.”  A Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning play, the inspiration for it came from Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.” However, the characters in this play are not as believable as the characters in Hansberry’s work. For starters, none of these characters engages the audience’s sympathy. Even the first white couple, Bev and Russ (Daniel Jenkins), who are grieving for the loss of their adult son, don’t bring a tear to the eye. The actors are all top notch and the direction is good, so the fault lies with the play itself. It’s a good play and it cleverly turns the real estate table upside down, but it has its problems, most especially with cardboard stereotypical characters.

Because of its clever format, the actors all play double roles. The cast pulls this off well. Jimmy Davis, Leroy McClain, Lucy Owen, and Melle Powers make up the rest of the cast and all manage to switch in and out of roles convincingly.

There are as many funny lines in this play as there are provocative lines. What is so sad is that “A Raisin in the Sun” opened in 1959 and “Clybourne Park” opened in 2010. Some progress has been made, but not enough to make this work a history play.

The Long Wharf set designed by Frank Alberino is quite amazing with its long staircase and multiple rooms. Truth be told, it’s pretty exciting to watch the set change. The interior of the once stately home turns into a run-down, graffiti-decorated house for the second act. During intermission, the stage crew disassembled the set by knocking down walls, pulling out carpeting and creating magic right in front the audience. Linda Cho’s costumes were appropriate with Tyler Micoleau’s lighting and Elizabeth Rhodes’ sound designs accenting the set well.  This play runs through June 2. Box office: 203-787-4282.

 

Joanne Greco Rochman is an active member in The American Theatre Critics Association, and covers art and culture in a blog for CBS and CBS-CT.  She welcomes comments. Contact: jgrochman@gmail.com.