"There's a lot of pride and memory in these houses," says Lena (Omozé Idehenre), one of many well-meaning urban dwellers who populate the stage in Bruce Norris' masterful, whip-smart Clybourne Park. She's referring to the importance of historic preservation, of treating a house as a monument to the everyday lives of long-gone strangers. But remembrance isn't always for the best. You can't pick and choose the good recollections over the bad. And there's a fair amount of overlap between a house full of memories and a house full of ghosts.
Norris' play might appear to have little in common with Next to Normal, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Broadway musical now playing at the Curran Theatre. One show is a discomfiting comedy about race and real estate in Chicago; the other is a rock opera about bipolar disorder in the suburbs. But the deeper subject of both plays is unbearable loss — a very similar kind of loss, as it turns out, though in both cases it would be unfair for me to reveal anything more.
Clybourne Park, making its West Coast premiere at American Conservatory Theater, begins where A Raisin in the Sun left off. Lorraine Hansberry's seminal drama, set in the late 1950s, ends with the Younger clan moving out of an apartment on the South Side of Chicago, eager to make the transition to a house in the predominantly white neighborhood of Clybourne Park. In the first act of Norris' play, we see the other side of that particular racial divide: Russ and Bev Stoller (René Augesen and Anthony Fusco), a couple of nice middle-class WASPs recovering from a personal tragedy, have just sold their home to the Youngers. Meanwhile, the neighbors envision a tidal wave of "coloreds" streaming into the neighborhood. ("Sorry," one character interjects. "But don't we say 'Negro' now?")
Most everyone tries to be civil. Most everyone tries to understand. After all, they're worldly people — they can name the capitals of exotic countries like Mongolia. But their gauzy ideals keep running up against sturdy, dependable considerations like property, class, and of course race. "You can't live in a principle, can you?" asks Karl Lindner (Richard Thieriot), the only character in Clybourne Park who also makes an appearance in A Raisin in the Sun. "You've got to live in a house."
Act II moves forward to 2009, with a fresh set of characters gathered in the same home. As it turns out, the Youngers were the first of many lower-income African-American families to settle in the neighborhood during the latter half of the 20th century, and now, almost inevitably, Clybourne Park is taking tentative steps toward that process queasily known as "gentrification." Norris places us in the middle of a tense negotiation between white prospective homeowners and black community activists, culminating in an exchange of racist jokes that will leave most audience members convulsing with awkward laughter. It's a brilliant exercise in making a crowd of strangers delight in their shared discomfort.
A huge amount of credit goes to California Shakespeare Theater artistic director Jonathan Moscone, who makes his A.C.T. directorial debut with Clybourne Park. He helps a spot-on ensemble discover nuances that reveal, scene after scene, the subtlety at work even in the play's most provocative moments. This is a stellar production of an exceptionally well-conceived and well-written play.
Subtlety is a little harder to come by in Next to Normal. Solidly directed by Michael Greif, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, the show concerns a family unraveling in the face of mental illness. The mother, Diana (Alice Ripley), suffers from bipolar disorder triggered by emotional trauma. She depends on a literally mind-numbing cocktail of meds to keep her on an even keel. (Her relationship with her psychopharmacologist, she explains, is "like an odd romance.")
Ripley, reprising her Tony-winning role on this national tour, is sure to divide audiences. Her many fans insist that she brings raw immediacy to the stage, that she's a welcome rebuke to conventional notions of Broadway polish. This is true, so far as it goes. Others will hear only off-key vocals from an actress who pronounces her vowels very strangely for a girl from San Leandro. I landed somewhere in between: I found many of her spoken scenes compelling, though her singing did grate on me. As for her "rawness," I tend to think that there's a big difference between playing an uncontrolled character and giving an uncontrolled performance. Ripley frequently falls into the latter category, and not always to good effect.
Next to Normal ends on a note of forced optimism, insisting that despite everything we've seen, "There will be light." Even if that sentiment weren't a cliché, it offers both the characters and the audience an unnecessary absolution from the messiness and pain of severe mental illness. Clybourne Park is less eager to let anybody off the hook. The play's frank exploration of race in America only grows more complex and hilariously confounding as it progresses. Norris' vision is bold and wide-ranging without retreating into grandness or vagueness. He doesn't end with a joke or a platitude, but instead brings the curtain down on a moment of unresolved, elegiac reflection. He knows when he's said enough. And that's why, of these two plays about the ghosts who linger in single-family homes across America, Norris's ingenious, unsettling comedy is much more likely to leave you haunted.