04/20/2012 07:39 am ET Updated Jun 20, 2012

'Clybourne Park': The Old Neighborhood Returns

Clybourne Park first appeared on America's literary map in 1959 in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun as the lily-white enclave in Chicago in which Lena Younger buys a house. In his boisterous new play Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris conducts a then-and-now tour of the old neighborhood that is as unsettling as it is provocative and finds rabid racism still rages beneath a veneer of bonhomie.

In two acts set 50 years apart, Norris first gives us a glimpse of the community at the time the Youngers became the first black family to move there. Half a century later, Clybourne Park has gone through a cycle of turmoil and decline, and a white couple is negotiating to buy the now dilapidated house, raze it, and build one 15-feet taller on the site as the first whites to gentrify what had become a solidly black district.

The play opens in the 1959 living room of Russ and Bev, longtime Clybourne Park residents. Packing boxes are everywhere and Francine, their black domestic help, is busy wrapping items to go in them in newspaper. But all is not well with Russ and Bev. She is frazzled, talking nonstop, and waving her arms like an orchestra conductor; he is lounging in his pajamas, eating ice cream, and reading a National Geographic.

The source of Russ and Bev's anguish, disclosed gradually, is a very real tragedy that also resonates today. It involves their son, a Korean War soldier who went berserk and ended up a suicide, and his story haunts Clybourne Park to the final curtain.

The fireworks start almost immediately. When Jim, a country-club minister with a platitude for every occasion, tries to talk to Russ about the slothful apathy into which he is sinking, he is told in no uncertain terms to "go fuck yourself." Enter Karl and his very pregnant wife, Betsy, who is deaf and has a speech impediment. Ostensibly, Karl has come to chide Russ on his backsliding at Rotary Club meetings. But Karl has more on his mind.

As it turns out, Karl is none other than Karl Lindner, and he arrives in Norris's play straight from the end of Act II in Hansberry's drama. He is in an apoplectic rage that a black family is about to move into Clybourne Park, and that they rejected his offer to buy them out.

Fast-forward to 2009. Steve and Lindsey, white 21st-century Yuppies, are bantering with Kevin and Lena, the black couple from whom they are buying the same house at 406 Clybourne Street, now in woeful disrepair with graffiti on the walls and doors hanging off their hinges. When Lena, who grew up in the house, questions whether their plans for it will compromise the "historic" integrity of the community, the gloves come off.

Racial insults fly like shrapnel across the stage. That Norris serves them as uproarious comedy, and the audience responds in guffaws, begs the question "why are we laughing?" The answer might be more uncomfortable than many would like to believe. Many gags are clichés -- a white housewife trying to foist her chafing dish onto her black maid, or the old "some of my best friends ..." defense. Others -- told by whites about blacks and by blacks about whites -- are of the locker-room variety that most people stop laughing at by the 9th grade. As Lena says after one particularly crude joke, "It's not funny," then proceeds to tell one of her own. Norris doesn't stop with racist humor. In one raucous scene, he manages to skewer gays, army veterans and breast-cancer victims.

Norris has constructed Clybourne Park, which won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, with meticulous symmetry. Each act begins with repartee about world geography, and some racist allusions of the first act ("where do you find skiing Negroes?") are revisited in the second (Kevin and Lena are just back from a skiing holiday in Zurich). If the characters often seem stereotyped, they credibly depict recognizable attitudes.

A fine cast of seven actors under Pam MacKinnon's taut direction keep the sparks flying. Jeremy Shamos is electrifying, even frightening, in the dual roles of Karl and Steve. Crystal A. Dickinson and Damon Gupton deftly convey the changing attitudes and circumstance of African-Americans over the past 50 years. Frank Wood is excellent as Russ in the first act, and Annie Parisse delivers nice turns as Betsy and Lindsey.

A Raisin in the Sun is a great American play not because it was one of the first to deal with the subject of race, but because Hansberry captured the heart of human conflict on three separate levels: the first, of course, was the issue of racial integration in the 1950's; the second is the drama of a man trying to improve his life and running aground; finally, however, it is a play about the very nature of love. In one of the great speeches of the American theater, Lena Younger, facing an impending schism in her family, asks her daughter, "When do you think is the time to love somebody the most?" Too often, the correct answer is elusive.

Norris's play, on the other hand, is solely about race -- racism in general and racists in particular -- but it is a very good one, even if one leaves the theater echoing the frustration expressed by Bev at the end of Act I: "I don't know what to say anymore."