(L-R) Emily Neves as Betsy, Elizabeth Bunch as Bev, Libya V. Pugh as Francine and David Rainey as Albert don't quite know how to get along.
(L-R) Emily Neves as Betsy, Elizabeth Bunch as Bev, Libya V. Pugh as Francine and David Rainey as Albert don't quite know how to get along.
Jann Whaley

Clybourne Park at the Alley

'If we could all just sit down together at one big table and..."

Eisenhower-era housewife Bev (Elizabeth Bunch) doesn't finish her thought at the end of the first act of Bruce Norris's unflinching — and immensely funny — headlong dive into the thorny issue of America's race problem, Clybourne Park. She hasn't a clue how anyone's supposed to get along, not really. No one else does, either. Husband Russ (Jeffrey Bean) is lost in the past, grieving a dead son, and has had the stuffing knocked out of him. Packing boxes litter the living room, waiting for the movers on Monday, and there's that large footlocker to be brought downstairs and a wayward chafing dish to be given away. Meanwhile, the couple's ineffectual minister, Jim (Jay Sullivan), arrives to console a morose Russ who will not be consoled; black housekeeper Francine (Libya V. Pugh) tries to keep her composure in check from Bev's unintentional patronizing; and supposed good friend and neighbor Karl (Philip Lehl), accompanied by his deaf and very pregnant wife Betsy (Emily Neves), bursts in with veiled threats not to sell the house "to those sort of people," which could potentially lower neighborhood property values. No one has any values, not honorable ones. Francine's accommodating husband Albert (David Rainey) gets suckered by Karl into a hilariously inappropriate discussion of "skiing Negroes," which shows how adept Norris is at writing sitcom situations and appropriate punch lines. And then suddenly, the laughs stop with a kick in the gut.

No one in this multiple-award-winning play ever finishes what they mean to say, always being interrupted, misinterpreted or having the subject quickly change into something a lot less harmless, which leads inevitably to someone being offended. All these superficial good intentions get dashed under Norris's sharp-edged, gimlet-eyed perspective. When a character gets backed into a corner and forced to say exactly what's on his or her mind, it's war.


Clybourne Park

Through February 17. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. Purchase tickets online at alleytheatre.org or call 713-228-8421. $58-$68.

It's mighty prickly at 406 Clybourne Park, a middle-class address in a leafy suburb of Chicago. In Act I, Bev and Russ are moving out, and they've sold the house to the Youngers, who, you may remember from theater history, are the rising black family in Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 prize-winner A Raisin in the Sun, who move on up at the end of that play into a white neighborhood. Norris imagines what Russ and Bev and their white neighbors think of this — which isn't high-minded, you can be sure.

With stirring theatricality, Norris then imagines this same house 50 years later in Act II, when the current crack-and-graffiti black neighborhood is undergoing white gentrification. All the actors switch into new characters. (Since the seven actors have so indelibly etched their characters during the first act, it takes a few minutes to adjust to this startling transformation, but the slight dislocation is part of the play's delight.) Now it's the black neighbors who are incensed at what the newly arrived white yuppies plan to do with the property. History has moved on, but nothing has changed.

This intriguing play keeps you always on edge. You might see the pieces click into place, but they click with finesse and utter craftsmanship. It's a roller-coaster ride, as it veers from sharp turns into dizzying drops. James Black, one of the Alley's most esteemed actors, does exceptional work as director. If he's looking for another career, he's clinched it with his work here. The pacing is surefire; the characterizations, right on; the mood throughout shifting but on track. He knows how to pace a joke or a killer punch, and his actors rise to the occasion for this deserving international prize-winner.

Is there anyone who can do rumpled exasperation better than Jeffrey Bean? Certifiably one of Houston theater's most accomplished performers, he works wonders with Russ, breaking our hearts and making us laugh. He doesn't mess around in his acting; he goes right to the meat and sends out inspired sparks. Magnificent in this role, he then surprises us in the second act as blue-collar Dan, who's laying the water pipes in the yuppies' backyard for their koi pond. He's unrecognizable, and stops the show with another no-nonsense characterization. (His discovery of the aforementioned footlocker kicks the play into deeper territory.) Watch him flipping through National Geographic in Act I. He reveals Russ's inner ache just by how he turns the pages. Long live Bean!

Philip Lehl, after numerous seasons of exemplary work on various Houston stages, delivers some of his best work here in the twin roles of bigot Karl in Act I and then clueless, well-meaning yuppie Steve in Act II. The characters share similar traits, so the deep-seated rage of Karl morphs seamlessly into Steve's halting delivery and sputtering faux machismo. Steve means well, but keeps tripping over his liberal limitations, digging himself deeper into trouble with Lena and Kevin, the black neighbors who want to stop the white interlopers.

Alley newcomer Pugh effortlessly charms as put-upon Francine and then as contemporary, slow-fuse fire-brand Lena, distant relative of the Youngers, who's basically as self-righteous and blind as the others. Bunch is revelatory as model wife Bev, who hides the family's dark secret behind a sweet '50s facade that's cracking a bit too fast for her to comprehend. In Act II she plays the yuppies' opportunistic and rather dense lawyer, Kathy, all too ready to disclose ailments, shortcomings and lack of geography, anything to close the deal. As Francine's husband Alfred in Act I, David Rainey is incredulous at the white folks' obliviousness and neatly turns the tables in Act II as Lena's husband Kevin, who remains incredulous but who's touchier and quick to flash at any perceived slight. Although Neves has an easier time of it in the first act as comic deaf Betsy, she shines later as bitchy Lindsey, Steve's princess wife from hell, who gets to spout the classic white-guilt line "Some of my best friends are black!" Jay Sullivan does triple duty: first as obtuse pastor Jim, inconvenienced with a hernia and excuses; then as a rarin'-to-go gay rep for the black neighborhood association; and finally, poignantly, as the ghost of Bev and Russ's son Kenneth, who closes the play on a quiet, painful note. He limns all three roles with distinction.

Prejudice and deep-seated fear know no color, not in Norris's acid-fueled dissection. There's no resolution, and time brings only more questions. Through the decades, the house at 406 Clybourne retains its pain. This may not be comforting, but Norris delivers the message with such knowing wickedness that you hardly notice. There's a prize for this sort of sleight of hand.


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