The Unicorn Theatre does itself proud with its first class production of this wonderful play about race and real estate. Leave the egg nog and tinsel to A CHRISTMAS CAROL or NUTCRACKER. If you want meat and potatoes on your entertainment plate, this is the feast for you.
Bruce Norris‘s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning Best Play starts with a nifty conceit. In Act One, it’s 1959. We meet the white folks who’ve sold their house to the “colored” family in Lorraine Hansberry‘s classic play (and later the movie starring Sidney Poitier) A RAISIN IN THE SUN. The family has a secret, but the nosy neighbors don’t care– these folks are too afraid of what’s going to happen to Clybourne Park when “their kind” move in.
Jump 50 years to Act Two. It’s 2009 and guess who’s coming to dinner?
Clybourne Park is a trendy upper income enclave just minutes from Downtown (probably with its own Whole Foods), and now it’s the white folks who want in– in their case to build a McMansion in the historic neighborhood. All of the actors in Act One return in Two to play new characters, some of them tied to the old ones. Norris is out to show us that things haven’t changed all that much in 50 years– and this is a very smart way to do it.
The marvelous moral middle of these proceedings is occupied most nobly by David Fritts, who plays homeowner Russ in Act One. As he tries to hold his temper in the face of Brian Paulette‘s racist hectoring, Fritts delivers one of the strongest, most adroitly layered Unicorn performances in recent memory. Norris did a great job writing this piece– but Fritts makes it come alive.
Jessalyn Kincaid has two fine turns, first as Karl Lindner’s long suffering wife Betsy and later as the real estate agent you just know Betsy would have been in the next life. Jennifer Mays joins Brian Paulette as the intruding couple in both acts. It’s their juxtaposition in the proceedings that makes CLYBOURNE such a roller coaster ride. Paulette does a marvelous job, particularly in Act Two, when his efforts to be the nice guy wear everybody down to their nerve endings.
Mykel HIll and Janae Mitchell play the put-upon black couple– the maid and her helpful husband in Act One, the neighbors trying to maintain Clybourne Park’s height and set back restrictions in Act Two. They bring a measure of dignity to the storytelling that anchors the antics of the rest of the group. Michael Pauley has a nice turn as the gay community activist in Act Two.
Of course, you need someone to pick a terrific cast like this and guide them through a very well-written play. Director Joseph Price obviously knows his stuff, which is on ample display on the Unicorn’s Mainstage.
Creative and tech credits are all first rate, which is the more impressive because most of this team matriculates at UMKC, whose Theater Department co-produced with the Unicorn. Brett Engle‘s sets look just right; Devorah Kengmana and Adam Raine light the proceedings effectively. Nihan Yesil and Jonathan Robertson provide an aural setting worthy of this fine production. And Marc Vital‘s costumes and Matt Mott‘s props score equally high marks.
Our big budget theater company KC Rep could take a page from the Unicorn and this terrific production. I’m glad they finally stopped using their old tag line, because–unlike the Unicorn– there’s nothing fearless about some of the stuff the Rep has been producing lately (haven’t I seen THE FOREIGNER at the Heartland and New Theatre Restaurant a few times — and didn’t CAROUSEL work better the first time, down at the Living Room?)
No, Eric Rosen and company should check out what the Unicorn has wrought with probably 1/5 the budget. This is great theater, brilliantly acted and well produced. Holidays or not, that’s the gift you hope to get when you buy a theater ticket. It’s the season of giving at 38th and Main and CLYBOURNE PARK.