UNION, NJ – Take a drive to Kean University in Union and treat yourself to the New Jersey Premiere of the provocative “Clybourne Park” by Bruce Norris.
Set in central Chicago in 1959, the play initially deals with racial overtones when Bev and Russ are selling their home. A neighbor, Karl, arrives and starts to object to their real estate agent’s sale to an African American couple.
All the prejudices come out, as this scenario, filled with humor despite underlying fears, moves briskly along. Director Wes Grantom has kept it all flowing. Part of what makes this so intriguing are not just the stereotypes we all imagine, but the way the actors seem to fulfill those roles. We have the housewife, Bev, with her patterned dress and apron, her immaculate hair, prodding Russ to behave like less of a grump. We have the local minister, Jim, who delivers platitudes regarding the death of Bev and Russ’s son, who had served in the Korean War. Karl’s wife, Betsy, is deaf, adding another whacky dimension to the conversation. Francine is the African American maid, who appears to have a solid relationship with Bev. Her husband, Albert, comes by to take her home after work. Some of the action revolves around a footlocker that needs to be moved from the second floor.
In Act II, 50 years have passed and it’s now 2009. New neighbors have replaced the earlier ones. One couple wants to take down the house and put up a McMansion. The neighbors have started a petition, which would lay out parameters for frontage, height and other dimensions. It turns out there’s more personal history connected with the house than anyone knew. Lena’s great aunt was the first African-American to buy this particular house. And that aunt turned out to be Francine. Kathy notes her mother had been deaf, a genetic trait, which we can now trace back to Betsy. Gradually the truth of the war veteran comes out, turning the tables on the smug couple who think they’re going to improve the street.
There are plenty of undercurrents, although the second act doesn’t quite live up to the first act. The dialogue at times seems forced, as the prejudices turn into lectures. The comparisons of who travelled where in Europe display a certain shallowness, when connections deteriorate into small talk. The banter is often heavy handed, as are the jokes that are designed to be offensive.
The same ensemble performs in both acts, with the actors adept at their different roles. Kate Goehring as the housewife Bev and lawyer Kathy clearly contrasts the domestic wife with the career woman. Brad Bellamy is so understated as Russ that you thoroughly believe he is the disgruntled homeowner who can’t stand the piety of preacher Jim or the blustering objections of Karl.
Dustin Fontaine plays Jim, Tom and Kenneth, smoothly transitioning from an uptight minister to a contemporary activist to a final revelation at the end of the play. Tim McGeever as Karl and Steve captures the blustering, often clueless, demeanor of both men.
Brett Robinson is caught up in the role of the subservient maid, Francine, in Act I. She deftly captures the difficulty of being both pleasing and honest. She’s soon put on the spot by Karl, who tries to get her to admit that Negroes are ‘different,’ from what they eat to the sports they don’t participate in, like skiing. Albert, her husband, is played by Samuel Stricklen. He sees through all the pretentiousness of the neighbors trying to ‘protect’ their property values. Stricklen is especially amusing in Act II, when as Kevin he is obviously a successful businessman and the skiing theme comes up again.
The deaf Betsy from Act I is played to perfection by Danielle Slavick. She is Lindsey in Act II, married to Steve and intent on replacing the house with something bigger. But her rants and hysterics often undermine attempts by the others to reach a compromise. Bellamy makes an entertaining appearance as Dan, a handyman who is replacing pipe in the back yard.
Credit goes to Joseph Gourley for the functional, bare-bones living room and to Nadine Charlsen’s lighting. Costumes by Karen Lee Hart perfectly capture a 1950s vibe and contemporary casual.
Premiere Stages, under the artistic direction of John Wooten, has partnered with The American Conference on Diversity for this production. Talkbacks will focus on issues of racism and gentrification. “Clybourne Park” continues through July 28. Premiere Stages is located on the campus of Kean University in Union. For tickets, call (908) 737-7469. Visit kean.edu/premierestages for more information.
Coming up next is a new play, “The Beautiful Dark” by Erik Gernand, dealing with gun violence.