BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
It makes no big difference whether or not you are familiar with “A Raisin in the Sun,” which happens to be playwright Bruce Norris’ springboard for his intriguing “Clybourne Park.” Either way, Norris’ rueful comedy-drama thoughtfully considers social change over the last 50 years.
First staged by Playwrights Horizons in early 2010, “Clybourne Park” nabbed a Pulitzer Prize in 2011 but only now arrives on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theater, where it opened on Thursday with its original company of actors.
The story takes place entirely in the living room of a bungalow in a Chicago suburb. The first act, set in 1959, involves a middle-aged couple who sell their sweet little house to a black family, much to the horror of their white neighbors who try to make them change their minds.
The black family – not depicted here – are the Youngers from “A Raisin in the Sun,” and what links them to this play is the character of Karl, who appears briefly in Lorraine Hansberry’s drama as the white guy who fails to dissuade them from moving to his neighborhood.
The second act of “Clybourne Park” jumps forward to 2009 with completely different people. By now the house has deteriorated so badly that its latest owners, a white yuppie couple, intend to tear it down for a grander abode. Such gentrifying plans do not sit well with the local citizen’s group – as represented by a black couple – who argue their differences with the newcomers with increasing rancor.
The mood of the play’s first act becomes sorrowful as the tragic reason for the couple’s departure gradually is revealed. The contrasting and sharper second portion proves to be a bitingly funny satire, not only commenting upon the evolution of American racial attitudes over half a century but also about our general decline in manners as the mostly self-absorbed characters loudly talk over each other.
Observantly dressed by designer Ilona Somogyi, a well-meshed ensemble of seven excellent actors confidently invests their characters of 1959 and 2009 with distinctive personalities under director Pam MacKinnon’s discerning guidance. Designer Daniel Ostling provides a realistic setting that poignantly suffers the passing years.
A smartly-written play sure to provoke conversation afterwards, “Clybourne Park” may be too emotionally cool to please sentimental viewers, but many others are sure to enjoy the nasty conflicts that erupt when presumably nice people show their true colors.
“Clybourne Park” continues at the Walter Kerr Theater, 219 W. 48th St., New York. Call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.clybournepark.com.