Sunday, August 2, 2015


"Clybourne Park" a bitter satire about race and real estate, performed by a skilled cast.Toby Zinman found that the play both annoys and amuses; it creeps up on you and makes you squirm.



By Toby Zinman

For the Inquirer


In Lorraine Hansberry’s classic American play, A Raisin in the Sun, Karl Linder, representative of a  committee who wants to keep his white neighborhood white, visits the black Younger family. He  tries to bribe them not to move into the house they’ve just bought, and, unsuccessful, leaves, saying, “I sure hope you people know what you’re getting into.” The neighborhood the Youngers are moving to is named Clybourne Park.

Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, Clybourne Park, now at the Arden Theatre, takes up that racially charged  issue of real estate. A remarkably skillful cast directed by Edward Sobel creates characters that flirt with stereotypes, but become real and believable.

In  Act One it’s 1959, and  we meet the white family who sold the house to the Youngers on the weekend before their Monday move.  In Act Two it’s 2009, and we meet the gentrifying white couple who bought the house, and now it’s a black couple who tries to discourage them, speaking for the community, wanting to preserve the character of their black neighborhood. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

What has happened to Clybourne Park in fifty years is Norris’ template for what happened to American society: shifts in demographics do not solve race problems, especially among people who will not admit their racist attitudes-- despite a wild scene in which they trade offensive racist jokes.

We watch the irritating, chirpy, saccharine 1959 mother (Julia Gibson) patronize her maid (Erika Rose): both women keep a very tight rein on themselves,  with their husbands (David Ingram and Josh Tower) and with each other. Karl Linder (Ian Merrill Peakes)--the only character from Hansberry’s play to appear in Norris’—is, unsurprisingly, an obnoxious bully, married to a pregnant deaf woman (Maggie Lakis). This Father-Knows-Best world is rounded out by an ineffectual minister (Steve Pacek).

All these actors will reappear in 2009 as radically different characters, making Act Two a fine display of virtuosity, demonstrating theatrically that everything changes and nothing changes. There’s a trunk buried in Act One under a tree in the back yard, and dug up in Act Two. Much is buried in Norris’ America—guilt and grief and hypocrisy and repression.

 Clybourne Park  is a play that both annoys and amuses; it creeps up on you and makes you squirm. It seems to be obvious and turns out to be subtle. It seems to be an easy set-up and turns out to be complicated one. This is a bitter satire that makes us laugh while it indicts us.

 Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd St. Through March 25. Tickets $29-45. Information: 215.922.1122 or,

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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