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Acclaimed 'Clybourne Park' Entertains L.A. Before Heading To Broadway

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Fifty years After "A Raisin in the Sun," the Youngers' house in "Clybourne Park" gets sold again (Photo: Craig Schwartz)
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The many fans of the 1959 American stage classic "A Raisin in the Sun" were gratified a couple years ago by the appearance of a new play called "Clybourne Park," which conjures up a context for the events of Lorraine Hansberry's venerated work. The first act of "Clybourne Park" takes place in the house that the African-American Younger family is buying in "Raisin"; Act Two moves us ahead half a century, when the house has just been re-sold.

"Clybourne Park" is probably the most acclaimed new American play since John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt" back in 2004, and the original off-Broadway production, entire cast intact, is playing at the Taper this month before moving back for a Broadway run in April. Playwright Bruce Norris won last year's Pulitzer, as well as the Olivier Award in England. He'll presumably be the front-runner for this season's Tony.

There's a scene in "Raisin in the Sun" where one Karl Lindner visits the Youngers and unsuccessfully tries to dissuade them from moving into the still-all-white Clybourne Park neighborhood where his family lives. In the first act of Norris's play, Lindner (Jeremy Shamos), accompanied by his wife (Annie Parisse), pays a call on the house's sellers Russ (Frank Wood) and Bev (Christina Kirk) to talk them out of transferring the property to the Youngers and desegregating the neighborhood. The considerable indignity of Lindner's mission is exacerbated by the presence of Russ and Bev's African-American maid Francine (Crystal A. Dickinson) and her husband Albert (Damon Gupton), whom Lindner uses as conversational props to demonstrate that inter-racial cultural differences would tear up the community. ("Francine, may I ask: Do you ski?")

The entire cast returns in different roles after intermission when, fifty years later, Steve and Lindsay (Shamos and Parisse), who have just bought the house, are confronted with a petition from long-time local resident couple Lena and Kevin (Dickinson and Gupton), protesting that their intended remodeling will alter the distinctive historical character of the Clybourne Park neighborhood - meaning, begin to gentrify it. After an initial exchange of niceties about people Steve and Kevin both know and the European trips they've taken (they all loved Prague, Lena and Albert enjoyed the skiing near Zurich), the conversation soon breaks down into a heated exchange of social and then racial recriminations and barbs (including some irresistibly nasty jokes).

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Underlying the uncomfortable comedy in both acts is Russ and Bev's own family tragedy, the suicide of their son in his bedroom following his return from the Korean War. A trunk full of the young man's belongings, including his note of farewell to his parents, which Russ buries at the end of the first act, is unearthed by a workman (Wood again) in Act Two and sits at the front of the stage, still locked and unopened, while the the two couples and their representatives (Kirk and Brendan Griffin) go at each other oblivious to its contents.

You don't have to be at all familiar with "A Raisin in the Sun" to fully enjoy or appreciate "Clybourne Park." But Center Theatre Group (the Taper's resident company) is also presenting Hansberry's play in a simultaneous run at its Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City for those who want to experience the entire saga.

"Clybourne Park," directed by Pam MacKinnon, plays Tuesday through Sunday evenings, with weekend matinees, through February 26 (though no tickets are available for February 21-24) at the Mark Taper Forum. Tickets $20-$70.