Tuesday, September 20, 2011

THE UNKNOWN WAR - 'Clybourne Park' at Steppenwolf Theatre

I know nothing about the Korean War!

I came to that rather startling realization while watching Clybourne Park, which opened Sunday at Steppenwolf Theatre. And no, I didn't actually yell it out loud. I'm much too cowardly. You see, the play is set in post-Korean War America. And while a fundamental knowledge of American history is not a prerequisite to enjoying Clybourne Park, this glaring omission in my own historical reservoir really rubbed me the wrong way.

As soon as I got home from the performance, I frantically leapt onto Wikipedia. And after some furious skimming, I can say with shy patheity that I now know next-to-nothing about the Korean War.

One nifty tidbit I did pick up from the ‘Pedia was a quotation, “The Unknown War”. That creepy, ambiguous phantasm of verbal terseness is the designation that many U.S. historians have given the faintly remembered conflict in Korea. World War I was "The Great War", World War II was "The Good War", and the Korean War was "The Unknown War". Good, Great, ...Unknown? Marsha, Marsha, Marsha! Is the Korean War really history's Jan Brady? Is Clybourne Park an allegory for The Brady Bunch?!

Since seeing Clybourne Park, I have been banging my head against a wall trying to figure out what this extremely divisive play is all about. Well... it's about a lot of things. Steppenwolf's own marketing campaign uses the tag-line, "Why can't we just say what we mean?" and while there are shades of P.C-criticism in Bruce Norris' multi-layered script, there is also that ever-present fog of war. Maybe the play isn’t so much about about race and prejudice as it is about people’s petty differences and the irreparable social damage they caused; that they still cause. With Clybourne Park, Norris takes the oft-proclaimed conception that society is on the verge of a cross-cultural nirvana and rips it a new Buddha.

The play exists in the same theatriverse as Lorraine Hansberry's classic, A Raisin In The Sun, however to call it Raisins sequel, prequel, or sister-script would be a mistake. It's more of a cynical, fiercely intelligent second cousin, related in circumstance, but opposing in tone and theme.

Act One of Clybourne Park takes place in 1959, concurrently with the events of Raisin. The only overlapping character, (the Mrs. Garrett, if you will) Karl Linder (a nerdily precise Cliff Chamberlain) tries with all his might to keep the Youngers, Raisin's protagonists, from settling on Clybourne Street: a completely white neighborhood. Same basic plot as Raisin, but turned entirely inside out.

In Clybourne Park, Linder appeals to Russ and Bev (Kirsten Fitzgerald and John Judd), the married owners of the Younger’s prospective home, to not allow this well-meaning black family to move in. As friends, neighbors, and hired help get involved, stuff goes down. Norris unmasks the drippy, nostalgic yesteryear persona of the fifties, and reveals a gnarly monster of deep-seated hatred, paranoia, and neighborly contempt. Sounds fun, right? Surprise! The craziness that plays out onstage is jarringly funny and constantly provocative.

Act Two occurs half a century later; one year after the United States elected its first black president. The actors return to the now dilapidated room of the same home, but as different characters: Prius-driving, color-blind, young "urban professionals”. An initially civil discussion on property law quickly breaks down into barbaric hysteria. I can see your true colors shining through!

The 2011 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Clybourne Park has already played a slew of major cities including New York, London, and Washington D.C., with a Broadway run planned for this spring. But Steppenwolf Theatre's production is the first time the play has been given life on a Chicago stage. Funny, as the play by Bruce Norris, a playwright with many ties to Chicago, is set right here...in Chicago.

Steppenwolf's heart wrenching, horrific, and hysterical Clybourne Park is fashionably late to the party, providing audiences with a kind of full-bodied discombobulation that only a Chicago production of this play can. Uniquely at Steppenwolf, located just a hop, skip, and a jump away from the play’s setting, the performance begins and ends offstage, outside the theatre doors.

A community with a rich history of diversity, activism, and politics, Lincoln Park is now one yuppie short of an L.L. Bean catalogue. Of course, I say that with a haughty air of judgement, but seriously... I would love an apartment in Lincoln Park. Who wouldn’t? It’s that sort of hypocritical thinking that provides the playwright with his richest material. The enormous frustration and satisfaction this play simultaneously elicits comes from Norris’ eerily pitch perfect (verging on mean-spirited) observations about you and I, two people he has never met. The moment you realize hes right might come during the performance or right before your 30-and-over racquetball league practice on Wednesday afternoon, but when it does, it will freak you out and ruffle your feathers.

While the text is, for the most part, stronger than the acting company, John Judd's portrayal of Russ, a father mourning the loss of his veteran son, uncovers an astonishing amount of warmth, humor, and empathy in what could, in the hands of a lesser actor, be an icy cold character. Judd deftly navigates the many rapid changes of mood with graceful ease and skill, showing the audience that, for lack of a better phrase, he just... gets it.

As Lindsay in the second act, Stephanie Childers captures the North Shore attitude like a freaking Nikon. I found her to be the most uproariously funny member of the cast, but I also know that attitude all too well. Much of the acting is rooted in stereotype, which works more often than not, but in conjunction with Todd Rosenthal's too-true-to-life set, some moments come off as confuzzled. The set is visually akin to those old fixer-upper apartments that were once so popular, but doesn't evoke much emotionally or, for that matter, intellectually. It just doesn't evoke. It's just big and expensive.

Despite the oddly mammoth set, Amy Morton’s direction is scintillating and detailed, yet leaves no visible evidence at the scene of the crime. She stages this war of words with the physical muscularity of a WWE match and the speed and intellectual potency of The Daily Show. The timing of the occasional loud, bombastic interruption is notably super awesome.

Clybourne Park is a tough play to take in on many levels. It is a comedy of racing pulses, nervous sweating, and extreme discomfort. It's vulgar, it's racist, and it shines a vivid spotlight on humanity's potential for apathetically accepted evil: evil in our own homes; our own living rooms. Bickering with strangers; quarreling with friends and neighbors; screaming at our lovers. Fighting all these Unknown Wars.

Oh, I get it.

Clybourne Park plays Steppenwolf Theatre through November 6