The Unicorn Theatre continues an exceptional season with a well-acted production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Clybourne Park” by Bruce Norris.
I’ve never seen a play quite like this. Its trenchant humor justifies the “comedy” label, but that doesn’t begin to describe this thoughtful, meticulously crafted piece. It’s a carefully structured, intricate response to Lorraine Hansberry’s classic “A Raisin in the Sun” that offers a satirical look at racism and the life of urban neighborhoods in two acts separated by 50 years. Each cast member plays at least two roles, and the events of Act 1 inform the events of Act 2 as Norris creates a web of relationships that reverberates across generations.
The Unicorn production, directed by Joseph Price, is consistently impressive. This co-production with the UMKC Theatre Department is supported by some fine performances and features respectable work from a number of graduate students — scenic designer Bret Engle, lighting designer Devorah Kengmana, costumer Marc W. Vital II and actors Michael Pauley and Janae Mitchell.
Act 1 is set in 1959 in the home of Russ and Bev (David Fritts and Jennifer Mays), a middle-aged couple grieving the loss of a son who had returned from the Korean War with incendiary emotional issues. Russ and Bev are selling their two-story house, and during the course of the first act it becomes clear that the buyers are the Youngers of Hansberry’s play — a black family, in other words, moving into a white neighborhood.
We also meet Francine (Mitchell), the African-American housekeeper with whom Bev shares an imaginary “friendship,” and her husband Albert (Mykel Hill). Jim (Pauley), an unctuous minister, drops by. After an interval two other uninvited guests arrive — Karl (Brian Paulette), a member of the homeowner’s association, and his wife Betsy (Jessalyn Kincaid), who is deaf and pregnant.
Karl is Karl Lindner, a character in Hansberry’s play who as a spokesman for the neighborhood tries to buy out the Youngers to avoid the feared drop in property values if a black family moves in. In this show Karl pressures Russ to reconsider and lobbies him to exercise legal technicalities that could nullify the sale.
Russ obstinately refuses, motivated in part by his resentment of neighbors who ostracized his son after he returned from the war.
In Act 2, set in 2009, we encounter an ironic reversal. The neighborhood is now predominantly black but a young white couple, Steve and Lindsey (Paulette and Kincaid) want to buy the dilapidated house, raze it and build a new home. As they try to negotiate the construction requirements with members of the neighborhood association (Hill, Mitchell and Pauley) and a lawyer (Mays as the daughter of Karl and Betsy in Act 1), racial tensions come to the surface. Fritts reappears as a construction contractor who discovers a secret left behind by Russ and Bev half a century earlier.
This skilled ensemble exhibits close attention to comic timing and Norris’s deft dialogue is hard to resist. This is an utterly engrossing play. Paulette, coming off exceptional performances in KC Rep’s “American Buffalo” and Kansas City Actors Theatre’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” delivers inspired work as Karl and Steve. This guy is at the top of his game, and in a play that incorporates intricately timed exchanges and overlapping dialogue, he maintains clarity at all times. In some ways Karl and Steve are variations of the same personality, but Paulette makes them distinct, intense and amusing.
Fritts tends to dominate the last half of Act 1 as Russ, who travels from initial emotional coldness to high boil as he reacts to the pressure tactics. Ultimately Russ goes back to a simmer as he prepares to literally bury the family’s memories. Fritts handles the transitions beautifully.
Playing two very different roles — the insistently cheery Bev and the blithely superficial Kathy — Mays exhibits impressive versatility. Kincaid demonstrates her formidable comedic skills in Act 1 and turns on the heat in the second act as Lindsey reacts to the increasingly volatile discussion of race. As Jim, the inept minister of Act 1, Pauley gives us a nicely observed performance and easily fulfills the requirements of Tom, a more utilitarian role.
Hill is, as always, a charismatic presence who brings gravitas to the stage as the working-class Albert and smoothly shifts gears in Act 2 as the occasionally glib Kevin. Mitchell offers an appropriately restrained performance as Francine, the housekeeper, and performs a palpable slow burn as Lena in the second act.
Engle’s set, which is transformed from a well-appointed middleclass home to a neglected shell during the course of the play, is nicely executed, although he could have made it even more detailed if he he’d been given a little more money. The costumes are effective, although the strange, shell-like wig Hill wears in Act 1 is a distraction.
The play offers a lot to chew on, but the piece is inherently imbalanced. Although Norris, a white writer, makes a good-faith effort to say something about race and history and the life of cities, “Clybourne Park” isn’t really about the African-American characters. They exist as a contrast to the angst and antics of the Caucasians onstage, whose journey is always the center of focus.
Even so, this is strong stuff — funny, absorbing and provocative.Onstage
“Clybourne Park” runs through Dec. 29 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Man St. For more information, call816-531-7529 or go to UnicornTheatre.org.