There's plenty to analyze in Bruce Norris' comedy-drama, "Clybourne Park," but let's cut right to the chase: This is a wonderful play, very funny but also deeply moving, providing full exercise for both mind and heart.
In fact, at the Pittsburgh Public Theater I felt this potent double punch more than I did last year on Broadway, where it won the triple crown -- Tony Award, Pulitzer Prize and (in London) the Olivier Award. This greater impact may be because of the relative intimacy of the O'Reilly Theater and the nuanced direction by Pamela Berlin, but it owes something to seeing it a second time.
I was blown away at the Public. 'Nuff said.
But if you're like me, it isn't enough, because you'll try to figure out how it can so surprisingly engage both mind and heart. Lest you say, "just let it be," well, "Clybourne Park" is specifically set up to encourage such analysis by doubling back on itself, with Act 2 recapitulating Act 1, but with new twists to a story that you hadn't even realized it was telling.
As the old saying has it, to those who think, life is a comedy; to those who feel, a tragedy. Act 1 starts out like a comedy, then pulls that switch; Act 2 does the same, digging deeper each time.
To start, "Clybourne" is full of smart sociological insight -- call it a 21st-century comedy of manners, casually dropping markers of race and class into conversation. Everyone is slightly weird, like us all.
Act 1 takes place in 1959 in Clybourne Park, a (fictional) white suburb of Chicago, where the Homeowners Association is upset because Russ and Bev have just sold their house to a black family from the inner city. They want them to cancel the sale, but Russ refuses. A minister offers ineffectual counsel, and a black maid and her husband provide ironic counterpoint.
Act 2 takes place in the same house in 2009. Decades ago the community turned black, but now it's being gentrified by young white professionals, disturbing settled patterns once again. The arguments now aren't about race but class -- zoning regulations and architectural and historical heritage.
One character is related to the black family who bought the house in 1959; another is the child of that Homeowners Association representative. But they don't know as much as we do about what happened in 1959, and none of us knows enough.
"Clybourne" insists on its parallels throughout Acts 1 and 2. Similar jokes, references, names, ideas, etc., keep coming up in the dialogue, generally to comic and ironic effect.
Because the same six actors appear in both acts, playing entirely different roles, we also see the characters in Act 1 echoed in the different characters of Act 2. This is a powerful metaphor, suggesting both similarities and differences. There's also an extra character in Act 2, but you're better off not knowing that -- it's a good reason not to read programs in advance, or reviews.
And there's also a third level of parallels. Many will realize that this play builds on Lorraine Hansberry's famous 1959 play, "A Raisin in the Sun," in which an inner-city black family risks leaving the slum for a house in the suburbs. Mr. Norris has imagined the story in the white neighborhood that parallels that in "Raisin," with the only character in common being the Homeowners Association representative who tries to buy the black family out.
You don't need to know "Raisin" to make sense of "Clybourne." But if you do, it provides a layer of (fictional) "history" that complicates response -- to my mind, advantageously so.
However, none of these clever parallels gets at the emotional heart of either play. In "Raisin," that heart is the growth into responsibility of the man who is its focal point. It's a play about moral courage. In "Clybourne," that heart gets back to why Russ wanted to sell the house in the first place, reasons that have to be dug up in Act 2. I won't say any more than that, but if you're like me, you'll have your heart in your mouth.
The six actors are all excellent, some more at one moment or in one act, some in another, as the playwright requires. If I may be allowed a favorite, it's Brad Bellamy's Russ in Act 1. But all praise to him and the others throughout: Lynne Wintersteller, chandra thomas, Jared McGuire, Bjorn DuPaty, Tim McGeever and Megan Hill.
And what is "Clybourne Park" mainly about? Racism, certainly, and community, and whether we are, indeed, our brothers' and sisters' keepers. Given all this, how wonderful it is that we can laugh at our own social insecurity. But as the song with which the Public begins each act says, "Something's Gotta Give."
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.