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Clybourne Park on the old Studio Arena stage

THE BASICS: This award winning comedy/drama by Bruce Norris deals quite cleverly with racism in the housing market. It is having its local premiere, courtesy of Road Less Traveled Productions, at the 710 Main Theatre, former home of the Studio Arena. CLYBOURNE PARK plays weekends through Dec 1st. The play runs a little over two hours with its single intermission.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: The action takes place in the living room of a modest three-bedroom bungalow in Clybourne Park, a first-ring Chicago suburb. The high concept is that the two acts take place 50 years apart! The first act, set in 1959, concerns a traumatized couple whose sudden exit from this tight-knit community—via a quickie sale to an undesirable (read: black) couple—sets the stage for subsequent White Flight. Act two takes place in 2009. Clybourne Park has weathered a few very tough decades, but has now again achieved stability, as a respectable, lower middle class black community. This time it is the prospective sale of the home to a white couple–who plan a luxury make-over of the neglected property to go along with their improved commute times–that is ruffling feathers. What appears to be a done deal begins unraveling as the parties, white and black, move off of the technical details and begin to converse more authentically with one another. Can Caucasians and blacks (or Hispanics, or Asians, etc.) overcome their fears and prejudices sufficiently to cohabit successfully? Judging by this play, the jury is still out.

THE PLAY, THE PLAYERS AND THE PRODUCTION: Act one is a thing of beauty. The characters are diverse and interesting. Director Scott Behrend gets some terrific performance from his hand-picked cast of seven. Particularly outstanding are David Mitchell and Lisa Vitrano as Russ and Bev, the exiting couple whose world has been rocked by domestic tragedy. Using Russ’ bubbling hostility as the driving force, Behrend keeps the tension palpable all through Act 1. He also whips up a few fiery whole-group exchanges, moments of inspired chaos, both prior to and after the intermission. Wonderful direction.

Sadly, the second act never quite lives up to the high standards set by the first. The characters are less diverse, and less interesting. While the principals chit-chat about frontage, easements and the like, playwright Norris quietly skewers his white yuppies. Yes, the “R” word finally is spoken, but the playwright seems content to settle for subsequent unease, and the trying out of racial jokes upon the entire company (ie: “Why is a white woman like a tampon?”). We (read: I) so want the characters to “let it all hang out”, say the things they’ve been too afraid or polite to say, and transform this into a truly great piece of theater. But it doesn’t happen. I’ll confess I felt somewhat let down. Norris instead concludes with a poignant but odd little coda, taking us back to 1957, to the eve of the personal tragedy that eventually catalyzes the action in Act 1. This little scene, while touching, is ultimately very dispiriting, and leads us away from the larger and more important thematic elements of the play. Happily, we’ve already seen enough, and have experienced enough, to carry on such “big” discussions on our own, on our various car rides back home!

Kudos for Road Less Traveled Productions for bringing this powerful and very relevant piece of theater to town, and for staging it so lovingly and handsomely on the old Studio Arena stage. As you can see, I do have some quibbles about the play itself, but you would indeed be foolish to miss this outstanding production!

Buffalo-four

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO:  This means trouble.   A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both.  Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS:  Passable, but no great shakes.  Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic.  Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS:  I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater.  If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS:  Both the production and the play are of high caliber.  If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS:  Truly superb–a rare rating.  Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart.  Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Grant Golden

Grant Golden

GRANT GOLDEN wears a number of hats. He has been practicing radiology in Buffalo since 1981, for the past 15 years, with Seton Imaging. Dr Laszlo Tabar, internationally famous mammographer, has been his special friend and mentor.

Grant began The Old Chestnut Film Society, Buffalo’s only film society, in 1983. Now in its 35th consecutive season, the OCFS does monthly screenings of Hollywood classics in 16mm.

He has written the scores (and some of the books) for a number of locally produced musicals, including the old WONDERMAKERS shows, THE OTHER ISLAND, NOBODY’S INN (Alleyway Theatre), IZZY! (Musicalfare), and ME II (Western Door Playhouse). He reviewed local plays on the radio for 20 years--on WBEN and WBFO—before making the switch to BuffaloRising.

Grant and his lovely wife Deborah live in Central Park with their dog Ginger, and cats Ella and Felix. They have three adult children, and now, happily, two grandchildren!

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