22 February 2010

I Am Frustrated By This Play, But Maybe Moreso By The Critical Response

When I was in college, I took a dramaturgy class that hinged on the idea of "dramatic action." It's what happens over the course of a play, what changes. There's a moment of revelation in which the protagonist learns something about himself or the world, and then he, like, stabs his eyes out, in the case of Oedipus. Or something like that.

So. I will give ten bucks to anyone who can tell me the dramatic action of the second act of Bruce Norris' new play, Clybourne Park. Other than "Jeremy Shamos' character gets angry," or "People go from being passive aggressive to a little more blatantly aggressive." Tell me what happens. Tell me how someone changes. Because I saw an hour of bickering, and it is frustrating the hell out of me. (I am serious that I want to hear your answer to this question.)

Part of what's so frustrating is the fawning reviews, lauding the play's sharp, damning insight. I mean, it's damning, yes. It says, "These characters are assholes." But the only thing worse that being stuck in a fruitless, circular argument with a bunch of assholes is being made to watch one such argument for an hour, and that is not something that reveals to me a bloody thing.

I should back up. There were many wonderful things about this production. The first act, though maybe not any more active, was at least moving and engaging and a story I haven't heard before. Frank Wood (giving a full-on genius performance of subtle anguish) and Christina Kirk are 1950s homeowners who, it turns out, have sold their home in a white Chicago neighborhood to a black family. The community is outraged, but they hold their ground. The juxtaposition of 1950s repression and the historical perspective on shifting neighborhood demographics is absorbing (especially to someone like me, a white kid living in a Dominican neighborhood that was an Irish enclave 40 years ago). Relationships and pretty facades shift and slip, and tensions flare. Anchored by Frank Wood's bitter, heartbroken father, and sparked by Jeremy Shamos' brilliantly high-strung community representative, this act may be more about revelation than action, but it makes compelling theatre nonetheless.

Act two, though, brings us into the modern day, after the Clybourne Park neighborhood has slipped into urban blight and begun its resurgence. The house of the first act is decrepit and graffitied, and a white couple, played by Shamos and Annie Parisse (who, as Shamos' deaf wife in the first act, was pretty fantastic), have bought the property to demolish the decaying structure and replace it with a new construction. They're meeting with representatives of the community to address concerns about the new house's size in the historic neighborhood.

And so the black community members, represented by a white lawyer, and the white family represented by another white lawyer, bicker and passive-aggressively dance around issues of history and community and heritage, and when someone finally breaks and says, "This is about race!" everyone looks at him like he's crazy. They go from trying to be polite to abandoning that idea, but still nothing actually gets said, no real feelings or fears or desires are expressed. And then there's some shouting and the play is over.

Part of the problem is that these characters are flat mouthpieces for Norris' speeches and screeds. They make small talk about European travel or word origins or ice cream, and then someone has a few paragraphs about a Theme Of The Play, and some people react or get offended or whatever.

I've had a huge problem with Bruce Norris' earlier plays in that the white, well-meaning liberals are all idiots and assholes, and there are always one or two wise black people - never American - who see through the hypocrisy and call it what it is. At least in this play, everyone's an asshole, and no one gets a free pass. But the problem with these passive-aggressive hypocrites is that an hour-long argument between passive-aggressive hypocrites is really painful to watch. Norris is probably trying to hold a mirror up to his audience's well-meaning liberal hypocrisy - "Oh my god! I dance around racial issues, too!" - but the characters are so two-dimensionally awful that the audience - especially the older, more monied theatre-going audience that doesn't have to worry about being priced out to traditionally minority neighborhoods like, oh, me and all of my friends - that it becomes not, "Oh my god, we do the same thing!" but rather, "Oh my god, look at those awful people!"

I don't imagine that my experience as an agent of gentrification is universal, but anyone as blithe as the white couple of this play's second is just blind to the world, and a jerk. This play didn't tell me anything about race or neighborhoods or tradition or community. It told me that Bruce Norris thinks that people are selfish, self-deluded, and terrible listeners. Reviews are calling this play witty and insightful. What insights, exactly, has anyone gleaned? That gentrification is complicated? That people have trouble talking about race?

And also, on the topic of wit: I am calling for a moratorium on Whole Foods as symbol for yuppie gentrification. That's not a funny punch-line any more, and also, it's just a fucking supermarket.

18 comments:

Jonathan Mandell said...

If you don't mind my saying, it's kind of the point that nothing happens in the second act: As I try to say in my (yes positive) review, the playwright is hinting that, for all the talk about how we've changed from the 1950's aloof nuclear family into multi-cultural "community," the community can't get any more accomplished, because its members don't trust or understand each other any better.

Anonymous said...

black people are scary sometimes though!

mg

Pete Miller said...

I got to see the first read of Woolly Mammoth's production of this same play in DC. Haven't seen the New York production, and Woolly doesn't open for another two weeks. However, having heard the script, I feel like there is a major dramatic moment in act II when we learn that for one of the participants in the discussion the issue isn't race or ethics, she sincerely doesn't want an outsized, ugly house built in her neighborhood, especially at the expense of a structure with which she has personal history. The extent to which calling into question someone's taste may be more damning that questioning her racism or ethics was a very potentially powerful moment for me. I look forward to seeing what the production makes of that moment.

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