Cue the nervous laughter over ‘Clybourne Park’1/15/2014
Ken-Matt Martin delivers the great freak-out of “Clybourne Park,” late in the brilliant second act, and he does it without a word. Martin, playing “Kevin” in this half of the story, loses it amid negotiations over changes in his neighborhood. That’s the park of the title, which African-Americans like Kevin have called home for a generation. The area is gentrifying, however, and the old houses feel small to the yuppies moving in. Now white buyers and black sellers, with their lawyers, have left behind neutral words like “easement.” Racial tensions erupt.
But the eruption is comic, and with each sputter everyone shows more teeth. When the motor-mouth white buyer blurts something about “evil invaders appropriating your ancestral homelands,” Martin springs to his feet and strides across the set. His lips in a stiff pout, he presses his fingers to either side of the neck, as if to keep his head from coming off. It’s a marvelous bit, and sharper for being wordless. A few minutes earlier, he got off the act’s first blockbuster line — itself dripping with assumptions about race.
As does the entire play. In 2010 “Clybourne” rocketed from Off Broadway to the Pulitzer and the Tony, proving again that nothing succeeds like materials doomed to failure. Playwright Bruce Norris doesn’t just tackle race, but also economics, suicide and — third rail! — a literary in-joke. The title comes from “A Raisin in the Sun,” Lorraine Hansberry’s Pulitzer winner from 1959. But where Hansberry goes for uplift, Norris sweeps in like a tornado. His first act takes place in ’59, when white folks were the ones trying to protect their property, and his second vaults forward half a century. The same actors, in the same assortment of colors, take over the 21st-century roles.
The result would be tragic, if it weren’t so wickedly gut-busting, and at Stagewest they get the paradox. Or the second act does; the first, on opening night, suffered jitters. The ’50s story pivots on the white Russ, selling the house. He’s doing this out of grief, we discover, and Michael Porche conveyed the man’s mellow denial but not the rage beneath. His obscenities didn’t explode, properly, and the ensemble around him didn’t fully engage until the arrival of the motor-mouth. This was Michael Tallman, marvelously annoying in both acts, and in the first his hyper-drive forced others to slow down, take stock. Andrea Markoski, as Russ’ wife, asserted a dunderheaded integrity with just her trembling chin.
The moment the second act opened, in a set converted from “Ozzie and Harriet” to “Boyz N the Hood,” everyone had found their place in the moil. Martin enjoyed the big moment, but the eye-opener was Shane Donegan. A clueless straight man in Act One, in Two, Donegan emerged as a controlling force, and then he topped that with a brief, heartrending turn in the epilogue. Does Des Moines have a Tony? CV
John Domini is Cityview’s “Play Mate” theater critic who pens our weekly Center Stage column. He is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.