Among the top of my many personal reasons for attending a theater performance is escape from reality. Certainly I like a show that’s ready to make me think or one I can relate to on a personal level, but a comedy (even a dark one) that takes me away from our present world is perhaps the theatrical treat I look forward to the most. Palo Alto Player’s Clybourne Park I’d say is a thought-provoking play with dark comic elements, and while I pride myself at having a pretty sinister sense of humor, proved maybe a bit too intense for my expectations.
The concept itself was a unique one. Same house 50 years apart and the same set of actors playing characters in both acts. Both acts deal in some fashion with the particulars of real estate and what has happened inside the walls of this specific house. How things have changed or haven’t changed is at the center of the plot and at the center of challenge for me. Despite some less welcome challenges for me, the challenge of set was admirably addressed and sound, lighting, costuming and props seemed to all blend as they should.
The play is structured with significant ambiguity and conflict. There’s dancing around topics, indirect language (mixed with some eventual very direct language) and I felt there was an elephant in the room long before I could identify what the elephant was. The dancing about is of course part of the point, but as an audience member that slow build felt like a bit of a trap, forcing me to go to uglier places to try (maybe prematurely) to fill in the gap of what was really going on; what wasn’t being said, what was truly at the center of this incredible tension that was so palpable from the beginning. Gentrification isn’t a laugh riot for me, and while I didn’t feel it was offensive, the struggles onstage made for a particularly prickly ride. It’s hard to define this play’s impact on me since there was nothing wrong per se, I just wasn’t sure I felt I was allowed to enjoy it. It wasn’t over the top obvious farce and it wasn’t particularly satirical or ironic…I was ill prepared for how uncomfortable this show would be (both the characters onstage and my own reactions) and how disappointed I would feel at how the world just is. There certainly was humor throughout (including some universal gasps of disbelief over what a character had the audacity or ignorance to blurt), but boy, was this an unsettling ride. On the other hand, it was pretty clear the discomfort was at least partially intentional, so really, in a way, they clearly did a good job in that regard.
What it may have just boiled down to is that I’m not one for any play that’s so consumed by argument and toxicity. It could have been a lot darker I expect, so I’m thankful that the directorial interpretation emphasized the humor in the script and added in some that maybe wasn’t initially written in. Maybe it’s a middle child thing, but the tension in the room just grates over time and there wasn’t quite enough of it that I found funny to temper it. No real change, redemption, arc that felt satisfactorily rewarding for having not lost my shit at some of the antiquated (or should be antiquated) way of thinking.
So if the play wasn’t my cup of tea, I feel certain it wasn’t for lack of a solid ensemble. I particularly enjoyed NOT enjoying the cringe-worthy irritant that was Karl/Steve. Both acts he was delightfully annoying in two very separate ways. A love to hate and desperately want to smack character for me. Additionally, the transformation from Francine in Act 1 to Lena in 2 was a standout; a fully committed character change, purposefully executed in both voice and body language and helped along with excellent costuming. Equally skilled was Betsy/Lindsay, who perhaps had the most distinctive characters to play, with built in and nuanced levels that felt appropriately poignant, intelligent and fun. It was a real pleasure to watch the character of Russ/Dan as well, with his characters perhaps the most natural, consistent, likeable and humorous of the lot. Bev/Kathy, Albert/Kevin, and Jim/Tom got the shorter end of the script stick I think and while they certainly were present and their roles performed well, I didn’t feel they had the same opportunities to shine within each scene or even capitalize on contrasts between acts. The levels were created where not written, but I’m not sure they were as fleshed out fully or could have been.
Overall, if you’re prepared for a dark and maybe too topical comedy; one that skates a bit too close to reality for easy laughter, Clybourne Park is good bet. 3 ½ jewels our of 5 in the review tiara for a play packed with some relevant ideas and maybe a few too many moments of uncertain or restricted (do I have permission to laugh at that) laughter. Clybourne Park plays through November 22nd at the Lucie Stern Theater in Palo Alto.
I was fortunate enough to experience the relatively new Players on Tap experience during the run of Chicago, a discounted and perk heavy event geared toward a younger (but still over 21) social set. On Tap for Clybourne Park will be this Friday, November 20th and will kick off with brews and bites starting at 6:30pm. Meals are loosely themed to the show (Paxti’s Pizza for Chicago) and gourmet beef, tofu and turkey dogs will be provided by Quick Dog along with adult beverages included in the price of the $20 ticket (limited to 50). A backstage tour after the performance is also offered, and if you haven’t see the stage up close and personal, it can be a nice bit of education and VIP access. This is a great opportunity to mingle with Players staff and audience members in a welcoming, low key atmosphere. I think any chance to talk with artists, staff and other audience members enhances your experience and help connect you to the plays. The price is right and the benefits of the experience are right on track for building and sustaining engaged patrons.