Theater Reviews: Clybourne Park; Expecting to Fly

Clybourne Park
Mark Taper Forum | 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. | Through Feb. 26 | Tickets $20-70 |

For all our heightened consciousness regarding issues of race in contemporary society, this highly polished, Broadway-bound production of Bruce Norris’ scabrously funny 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama exposes our crippling inability to actually discuss race without resorting to either cowardly dissembling or ugly attacks.

The play’s two acts take place 50 years apart in the same house, with Norris setting the action in the Chicago home purchased by the Younger family in Lorraine Hansberry’s seminal 1959 drama A Raisin in the Sun. The first act addresses the integration of a middle-class white neighborhood, while the second act explores the challenges of gentrification several generations later.

In Act One, Bev (Christina Kirk) and Russ (Frank Wood) are packing up the house to move to a quieter life in the suburbs. All is not as it seems, however, as we learn that their son committed suicide upstairs after admitting to viciously executing civilians during the Korean War. Russ rudely resists the trite counseling of local minister Jim (Brendan Griffin), and explodes at the racist attempts by neurotic neighbor Karl Lindner (Jeremy Shamos) to get him to reconsider selling to a “colored” family when Karl shows up with his deaf and pregnant wife, Betsy (Annie Parisse). (Lindner is actually a character in Hansberry’s play, which the Center Theatre Group is simultaneously presenting at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.) The family’s black housekeeper, Francine (Crystal A. Dickinson), watches over the proceedings with a weary resignation, while her hotter-headed husband, Albert (Damon Gupton), has a harder time keeping quiet.

The second act finds a well-meaning present-day white couple (Shamos and Parisse) meeting with members of the local homeowner’s association (Gupton and Dickinson), an attorney (Kirk) and mediator (Griffin) to get approval for plans to raze and rebuild the house in what is now a longtime African-American neighborhood. This polite, politically correct discussion gradually spirals down into a horrifyingly hysterical exchange, exposing the fear, mistrust and ugly insecurities of all sides. Norris’ sparkling drama weaves the two eras together at the end with grace, leaving great hope for contemporary theater but little for our ability to get along.

Daniel Ostling’s expansive and homey set combines with Ilona Somogyi’s nuanced costumes to present both eras with clarity and detail. And under Pam MacKinnon’s seamlessly dynamic direction, a fantastic cast does double duty, presenting what is hilarious and horrible about both eras and doing what great theater does best: holding the mirror up to society by examining the deeply etched details of finely wrought individual lives. —Christopher Cappiello

Expecting to Fly
Elephant Theatre | 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd | Extended through March 25 | Tickets $20 |

I call it the “Yasmina Reza effect,” the snowballing trend in theater since the late 1990s to create intermissionless plays with a single set and very few characters. Sure, simple economics has a hand in this development, but the worldwide success of Reza’s three-character Art inspired countless playwrights to cut out any supporting roles and tell their stories with as few characters as possible. Less is not always more, however, and Theatre Planners’ world-premiere production of Michael Hyman’s 80-minute two-hander about a young gay couple hashing out their failed romance is a perfect example. In spite of Kiff Scholl’s vigorous staging and the fearlessly committed work of actors Casey Kringlen and Justin Mortelliti, they are hamstrung by a construct that doesn’t allow for other voices or perspectives on the seemingly ill-fated couple.

At rise, a dark and brooding Jared (Mortelliti) returns drunk to his cheaply furnished, disastrously unclean New York apartment. His ex-husband, poet Sean (Kringlen), soon appears, taunting Jared about his abuse of booze and pills and his nightly, emotionally empty one-night stands. We quickly surmise that the pretty blond poet is dead, and that his troubled ex can’t shake his spirit as they wrestle over their past. In restricting the action to these nightly hauntings, Hyman creates a tremendous obstacle for the actors (and their director), as they must find varied ways to dramatize a story told entirely in recollection to each other.

If we are to have a stake in the resolution of the handsome twentysomething couple’s issues, we have to see them happy at some point in order to understand what they are fighting to recapture. Both actors literally hurl themselves into their roles—leaping, rolling and crashing around Keith Mitchell’s seedy set—but too often they are forced (or allowed) to resort to anger in communicating with each other. In a brief pause after sharing memories of their tumultuous wedding day, Jared quietly sings a few bars of U2’s “One” to Sean while curled up on the couch. It is an oasis of quiet connection, taking place in the present. The play could use more of that, whether through the use of additional characters, flashbacks or otherwise.

Hyman’s dialogue is well-crafted, and he gives Sean some appealingly idiosyncratic and poetic lines, which Kringlen handles with aplomb. Scholl makes adventurous use of the intimate space, and Matt Richter’s lighting adds portent to the proceedings. We just need a greater reason to want the tortured Jared to give up Sean’s ghost. —Christopher Cappiello

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