Christina Kirk and Frank Wood in Clybourne Park
(© Joan Marcus)
Christina Kirk and Frank Wood in Clybourne Park
(© Joan Marcus)
With his often-scathing new satire, Clybourne Park, now getting a thrillingly crackerjack production at Playwrights Horizons, Bruce Norris once again proves he's no mere provocateur. No doubt, there will be plenty of post-show discussion about the themes of racism and social change that Norris explores in the play -- while simultaneously splitting open your sides -- but savvy theatergoers will also be talking about the playwright's gifts for ingenuity and craftsmanship.

The play is set in two acts -- the first in 1959, the second in 2009 -- in the same home in Chicago's Clybourne Park neighborhood. Both acts begin rather benignly, before Norris goes in for the sucker punch. Both also occasionally ramble and reek ever-so-slightly of superficiality, but the denouements of each section are beautifully realized.

At the start of Act I, long-married Russ (Frank Wood, who implodes beautifully before exploding stunningly) and Bev (Christina Kirk, pricelessly sunny) are having a lengthy conversation about the derivation of the word 'Neapolitan." It's a gambit reminiscent of one of Edward Albee's plays -- a similarity that is heightened by the semi-stylized direction of Pam MacKinnon, Albee's frequent interpreter. And while there will be no bloody goats or imaginary children, Norris is no more interested in domestic bliss than Albee.

In fact, the first hint of what Norris has on his mind is the announcement by the couple's African-American maid Francine (Crystal A. Dickinson) that Mr. Karl Lindner is on the phone. Yep! It is the same Karl Lindner, the bigoted community leader that Lorraine Hansberry introduced in A Raisin in the Sun. Sure enough, the boorish Karl (superbly detailed by Jeremy Shamos) will eventually arrive at the couple's home -- accompanied by his good-natured, very pregnant, deaf wife Betsy (sweetly played by Annie Parisse) -- to fuel the firestorm over a "colored" family moving into the neighborhood.

While Bev and Russ turn out to be less overtly racist than Karl and his ilk, they don't care less about the tone of their buyers' skin. Norris strikingly details the personal tragedy that has caused the couple to hastily abandon their comfortable life, unaware of -- and uninterested in -- the fact that they are unwitting pioneers of the so-called "white flight" movement that would forever alter the course of urban and suburban life. Karl's visit not only exposes the ignorant racism of the 1950s, but the possibly unnavigable chasm that has opened up between Bev and Russ.

Half a century later in Act II, whites have not only repopulated the now-gentrified Clybourne Park neighborhood, but are perhaps insidiously (if unwittingly) erasing history. Indeed, obnoxious yuppie couple Steve and Lindsey (Shamos and Parisse, both deliciously unlikeable) are planning to tear down the old Younger home, which raises the hackles of neighbors Lena (Dickinson, gloriously fiery) and her husband Kevin (the fine Damon Gupton), who have their own connection to the house.

What begins as a seemingly civil discussion -- including uptight, obtuse lawyer Kathy (Kirk, marvelously self-centered) and harried realtor Tom (Brendan Griffin) -- deteroriates spectacularly, hilariously, and even a bit shockingly. Soon, unbelievably (and purposely) offensive jokes are exchanged, facades are exposed, and long-buried and long-forgotten reminders of the past are literally uncovered. Norris is hardly worried about pushing the envelope here. In fact, he shoves it so hard that the audience has no choice but to gasp in both horror and amazement.

In the end, Clybourne Park proves a place very much worth visiting for two hours; you just wouldn't want to live there.