Big fights, little fights, all around the town

'Clybourne Park,' 'Gin Game,' and a battle over the shape of culture and art

Sharonlee McLean, Gavin Hoffman, Kelley Curran, Brianna Horne and Kevin R. Free in "Clybourne Park." Photo: Patrick Weishampel.

Sharonlee McLean, Gavin Hoffman, Kelley Curran, Brianna Horne and Kevin R. Free in “Clybourne Park.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel.

As the lights dropped Friday night and the crowd leapt to its feet at the end of Portland Center Stage’s rousing opening-night performance of “Clybourne Park” it seemed not really an ending at all, just a quick pause before the next chapter in a continuing saga. And oddly, that felt good. The play’s two acts are set 50 years apart, with a lot of surface progress but the same old bugaboos of race and privilege lurking in the background, and if the ending feels a bit un-finalized, that’s really only a reflection of the reality behind the story. Things begin and end for specific characters, but the conditions under which they live their lives just keep rolling along. It’s not a bad thing at all to walk out of a theater thinking, “I wonder what happens next?”

In a way, that question is what “Clybourne Park” is all about. Written by Chicago actor/playwright Bruce Norris, it’s become a huge hit since it opened three years ago at Playwrights Horizons in New York. It won a Pulitzer in 2011 and followed with the Tony Award for best play in 2012. The big “what next?” in Norris’s play arises from the ending of Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark 1959 drama “A Raisin in the Sun,” when Lena Younger, a housemaid and the core of a struggling black family on Chicago’s South Side, decides to spend a small insurance settlement to make a down payment on a house in a nicer neighborhood – Clybourne Park, which has no black families.

Norris flips “Raisin” on its edge and begins “Clybourne Park” in the house where Lena is about to move, a rambling family home now cluttered with boxes for the previous family’s move to the suburbs. And he dips right into the other side of the story: What Lena sees as opportunity, the all-white residents of her new neighborhood see as a threat. The neighborhood association tries to buy Lena out at a higher price. Friendships break up. And the trickle of white flight to the suburbs is soon to become a stampede, leaving tumbling real-estate prices and a shift of Clybourne Park from an all-white to a mostly black neighborhood. Fifty years later, in Act Two, the tables are turned again. A young white couple have bought the old house, planning to tear it down and build an oversized replacement. This time, the black neighbors have concerns. Gentrification has begun.

Whew. Got all that setup? It’s much easier to follow on the stage, where director Chris Coleman’s assured and cracklingly paced production seduces you with alternating laughter and sorrow. For all of its contentious subject matter, “Clybourne Park” moves with a swift and entertaining energy, and Coleman’s production, which is impeccably designed and beautifully cast, works it to the max. With this production Center Stage does precisely what a flagship theater company is supposed to do. It takes an interesting play and gives it a top-notch professional production that brings out its nuances. It delights the crowd from moment to moment, and gives it something important to think about afterwards. And it sets a high standard not just for audiences, but also for other companies in town.

If I find the first act of what’s essentially two linked short plays more involving, it may be because of the remarkable performances by Sal Viscuso as the morose businessman who’s selling the house and Sharonlee McLean as his stay-at-home wife. Something horrible has happened in the house involving their war-veteran son, and Viscuso is absolutely compelling as Russ, a man who’s gone quietly bitter, and caustically hilarious, on the world. He lives a step to the side of things, observing and judging, buried in pain, and it’s astonishing to see him gradually grow in what might be moral stature, or simply disgust over awkward attempts to manipulate him, as the people around him reveal their baser intentions. McLean is a gifted comedian, as she displays amply in the role of a wisecracking lawyer in the second act, and she has some wonderful ditzy moments as Russ’s not-so-bright wife Bev, too. But gradually we realize that even if she can misread situations astonishingly, especially in relating to her longtime African-American maid, Bev has more empathy and emotional wisdom than anyone around her. Her fragility and determined optimism, which McLean reveals with extraordinary vulnerability, go together as a way of dealing with an impossible situation. The supporting roles are beautifully played, too: Brianna Horne as Bev’s eternally cautious and necessarily diplomatic maid, Francine, and Kevin R. Free as Albert, Francine’s sometimes overly helpful husband; Andy Lee-Hillstrom as a fatuous and comically ineffective clergyman; Gavin Hoffman, who is strikingly good as Karl, the glad-handing neighborhood activist (and a bit character in Hansberry’s “Raisin”) who’s appalled by the sale of the house to a black family and leads the protest against it; and Kelley Curran as Karl’s pregnant and deaf wife, Betsy, who doesn’t quite understand what’s going on around her. The switchbacks in belief and motivation among this provocative cast of characters are as endless as the country’s complex and contradictory beliefs and actions about race and privilege, and no one here is entirely wrong or entirely right. For all its compensating humor this first act contains a series of smaller and larger personal tragedies, and an economic and cultural shift that echoes down the decades.

Viscuso and McLean recede toward the background in the second act, which is set in a more run-down version of the first act’s interior (the handsomely playable design is by the savvy vet Michael Olich; costumes are by resident designer Jeff Cone). Coming to the fore are the clashing couples played by Hoffman and Curran (the newbie white owners) and Horne and Free (the neighborhood old guard). Curran is once again pregnant but this time not deaf, and her intentions are both innocent and good: she wants to love this place. Free is once again genial, but with a sharp sense of irony and a line that won’t be crossed; and Horne adeptly maintains a steadily simmering anger beneath a veneer of almost courtly patience. Hoffman once again plays the blunt force who brings race into the open while the others tiptoe around it, and once again does so without coming across as entirely a villain. He is, from his perspective, simply a realist. Norris gets impressive mileage out of a series of crude jokes – racial, sexual, you name it – that zip across the stage and heighten the tension among the characters even as they release the tension in the audience.

What’s going to happen after the final blowup? Who knows? Norris doesn’t answer the questions he raises, and it’s really not the play’s job to do so. It’s enough to set the questions in motion. Why does power always seem to tilt to white people? What’s good and what’s bad about gentrification? What’s the line between social cohesion and a free and open society? When is race the most important card on the table, and how does it play when the deck is stacked economically? When does a corrosive social outcome outweigh a good personal decision? Are we ever going to get this race thing right? “Clybourne Park” is only the latest chapter in Center Stage’s continuing examination of race in America, an exploration that’s included, among others, its African-American version of “Oklahoma!,” “Black Pearl Sings,” and the recently completed “The Whipping Man.” It’s a never-ending story.

And what happens next?

*

O'Brien and Nause in "The Gin Game." Photo: Owen Carey

O’Brien and Nause in “The Gin Game.” Photo: Owen Carey

Battles, battles, everywhere. Big and cultural at Portland Center Stage. Small and grotesquely personal at Artists Repertory Theatre. And sometimes, where you least expect them. Watching Vana O’Brien and Allen Nause duke it out so vigorously a while back in D.L. Coburn’s little fight club of a play “The Gin Game” at Artists Rep, I found myself thinking waywardly of Rocco Landesman and the sort of friends who come with, shall we put it, baggage.

Landesman, President Obama’s pick in 2008 to chair the National Endowment for the Arts, hung up his gloves at the end of last year, satisfied that one term of doing battle in the moral and strategic swamp of Washington, D.C., was quite enough. He was in many ways an able administrator, fighting to maintain federal arts funding in the face of a relentless reactionary insurrection. In divisive times it’s good to have a seasoned scrapper on your side. But sometimes it seemed like Landesman was landing punches on the people he was supposed to be protecting – or at least, like Nause’s character, bashing the bejeebers out of the table very close to his one and only friend.

So it is with Weller Martin and Fonsia Dorsey, the two aged outcasts in the retirement home that is the setting for “The Gin Game.” Like Landesman and the arts – he was a successful Broadway producer; the arts were, well, the arts – Weller and Fonsia seem naturally attracted to each other. “Made for each other” might be another question altogether, because beneath their affinity runs an unbridled competitiveness that eventually undoes them both: in the end they’d rather make war than love, and too late they realize they’ve spoiled the game.

Coburn’s play began life in 1977 as a vehicle for Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, and it’s been a smashing success in Portland as a vehicle for O’Brien and Nause, who surprisingly, given their long histories with Artists Rep – she was a founder in 1981, he is retiring after 25 years as artistic director – had never performed together before. The pairing, like Weller and Fonsia’s, seems a delayed inevitability, and under JoAnn Johnson’s precise direction these two fine veterans make the most of it. Nause’s rumpled feints and nervous twitches erupt into explosive and destructive temper tantrums; O’Brien’s stolid geniality hardens into a bitter thirst for vengeance and victory at whatever cost. In a smaller and less poetic way, Weller and Fonsia play something like the George and Martha game in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”: better to kill the baby than compromise.

Or, to put it another way: isn’t this the way national politics looks right now?

As rabble-rousing as his approach sometimes was, Landesman didn’t go for the jugular the way Weller and Fonsia do. A lot of people in the arts, noting his brashness and eagerness to speak his mind, welcomed his appointment to the NEA, figuring he could shake up an overly cautious bureaucracy. But Landesman came from the for-profit side of the industry (Broadway shows exist in the hope that they’ll make money for their backers) and it often seemed he didn’t understand the very different place his new not-for-profit playmates were coming from. The bottom line is very important in government, especially in an area like the arts, which a lot of people feel has no business getting taxpayer money at all. And Landesman made it very clear, over and over, that if the government was going to be in the arts-funding business, it should be underwriting the very best. That caused a ripple of unease across the nation among arts people who suspected that by “the very best,” he meant “the stuff that’s in New York.”

Then, early in 2011, he really shook things up: he said the nation had too many not-for-profit arts organizations, and maybe some of them should go out of business. It was a matter of supply and demand, he added. At the same time that groups were proliferating, audiences were shrinking.

A little tussle is good for most relationships: it keeps the blood pulsing and the sparks flying. And underneath the gamesmanship there are often real issues that need to be worked out. Landesman wasn’t entirely wrong in his assessment (he was also far from entirely right), and like Norris with the effects of urban gentrification in “Clybourne Park,” he was bringing up issues that had been conveniently ignored for a long time. But politically, his timing was curious: at roughly the same time, a group of about 165 House Republicans was calling for the abolishment of the NEA, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting – in other words, getting the government out of the culture business. Landesman was hardly in collusion with the hard-liners. He wanted to focus arts spending, not kill it off. But the resulting outcry in arts circles was predictable: with friends like this, who needs enemies?

The NEA survived, and no doubt will stumble on, because unlike Weller and Fonsia, a majority of the members of Congress still think a little compromising is a worthwhile thing – at least on the fringes of the battlefield, where the matter of national funding for the arts is most frequently to be found. And Landesman’s tough-headed look at the role of government in the arts was not a bad thing at all: “We love everything and everything should get money” is not a responsible policy statement. Further, there are inbred problems with government underwriting of the arts that rarely get discussed. How do you sincerely oppose your benefactor? (Somehow the best court jesters in European history managed to speak uncomfortable truths without losing their heads.) What’s the role of entertainment in art? (I sometimes think the nonprofit theater’s constant need to prove its seriousness and social relevance has led to a crippling undervaluing of comedy.) But what will Landesman’s legacy be? It could be that he set the agency on the wrong side of the divide.

His concept of a leaner, meaner, and smaller arts scene doesn’t fit the reality of what’s happening in Portland and other cities across the country. Leaving aside the issue of government backing, the cultural scene here is vastly broader and more diverse than it was 20 or even 10 years ago. It seems like a movement that can’t be stopped, even if you pull the plug on funding. The central arts groups – opera, symphony, art museum, ballet, LORT theater company – simply can’t count on the primacy they once enjoyed. It isn’t that they aren’t still important: they are, as the theatrical flagships Center Stage and Artists Rep have proven over and over again, and it’s quite important that they strive for excellence. But the arts world has become a mosaic, just as the culture itself has: a reflection of many different worlds, many different points of view. We are, as a multiculture, remaking ourselves, and artists are the reporters of what hasn’t quite been realized and explorers of what’s to come. Maybe that’s why power elites sometimes don’t like them very much. And maybe that’s why they’re worth the fight.

*

NOTES:

“Clybourne Park” continues through May 5. Ticket information here.

“The Gin Game” continues through April 28. Ticket information here.

Marty Hughley has a wonderful piece about the making of “Clybourne Park” in The Oregonian. See it on OregonLive, here.

Hughley’s review for The Oregonian of “The Gin Game” elegantly sums up the critical consensus.

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