Sometimes with live theater things go horribly wrong, and the production can be an uphill struggle and a test of faith. The Dirt Dogs company took on CLYBOURNE PARK and quickly discovered how many things can work against you when producing a show. Cast members battled COVID cases, one had to drop out days before opening and the race was pushed back a week to compensate. When I saw the show on their opening night it was still messy and ragged with an actress to be on the book, but somehow the magic of the script and the talent of the company carried the piece across the finish line with grace and beauty. The Japanese embrace an aesthetic called wabi-sabi where they celebrate an imperfect object by adding gold to fill in the cracks. CLYBOURNE PARK’s Dirt Dogs production might just be the embodiment of that idea, a piece to celebrate even with visible cracks. And something tells me playwright Bruce Norris would appreciate the imperfections since his 2010 screenplay was supposed to show the flaws without flinching.
CLYBOURNE PARK is a witty prequel to and sequel to the 1959 play A RAISIN IN THE SUN by Lorraine Hansberry. In Act I set in 1959, the play tells the story of a grieving white family who decide to sell their home in a middle-class neighborhood to escape the pain of haunting memories. The neighbors are in crisis because the buyers are a black family, and they fear what will happen to the neighborhood once it diversifies. This leads to a confrontation and a discussion about what it means, and before long the conversation drifts into a racist rant and an “us versus them” mentality. The second half, five decades later, shows a white couple moving into the same house after the community turns black. They want to tear down the structure and build a mansion that will stand fifteen feet taller than their neighbors. They are forced to negotiate with neighborhood officials who fear what this will mean for their community. Discussions range from aesthetics to blatant racism that ignites heated exchanges between the two parties. It’s a screenplay that won a Tony Award for Best Play in 2012, and ten years later still has a lot to tell audiences about territorialism and racism.
Dirt Dogs enlisted theatrical impresario Ron Jones to lead this production, and it was a wise move. Jones has worked extensively with theaters that celebrate cultural diversity, and her pedigree lends itself perfectly to that scenario. He’s no stranger to doing “whatever it takes” to get a production across the finish line despite sudden obstacles. Yet what he does best is orchestrate Bruce Norris’ insanely intricate dialogue and bring this spectacle to life beautifully with blocking and guidance that elevates everything from a physical standpoint. His remarkable skillful hand is recognizable, and the show benefits from it.
The cast carries every moment well, and their commitment bleeds through every performance. Malinda Beckham delivers a heartbreaking portrayal of a mother in the 50s act, then turns in one of the funniest sketches of a real estate lawyer in the current part. It captures something in the two defining eras that the piece contrasts. In one act, you suffer from her optimism that things will get better, then in the next, she blows it all up with tragically hilarious cynicism. Trevor Cone plays his bitter wife in the first act. We feel his anger and pain as he delivers a powerful performance of a man driven to a place beyond caring about his own grief. In the second act, he just gets clumsy as a construction worker who makes a startling discovery. He’s an expert in both anger and comedy.
In contrast, we have Blake Weir and Amanda Marie Parker playing couples who remain spiritually the same in both acts. In the first part, Blake plays a minor character from A RAISIN IN THE SUN who tries to bribe a black family into not moving to their neighborhood. Here we see him pestering the current occupants to stay put for the greater good. The second act, he plays a typical out-of-touch white guy who finds humor in racist jokes and refuses to see his own privilege and superiority complex. Weir shamelessly disappears into each role, and he provokes and disturbs in equal measure. Amanda Marie Parker takes her turn playing the innocent deaf wife in the first part, then sinks her teeth into an ill-advised suburban mom who thinks she’s a lot more progressive than she is. The two actors do an excellent job without ever stopping or flinching to show the imperfections. They don’t hold back and willingly plunge into the darkness that awaits them.
Wesley Whitson features a lowly priest and a flashy gay real estate attorney who brilliantly show off his range. It is serious and sweet like the ecclesiastic, then acid and cutting in the second half. Derrick Brent II plays a black husband in both roles, and he easily embodies both anger and restraint in the face of gross injustice and stereotypes. And to complete the cast, Crystal Rae whom I saw play her role after only two days of rehearsal. She plays the maid in the first act, then becomes her community’s advocate in the second stretch. Despite being on the book, I was moved by her performances in both characters. She has a sweetness that shows up initially, but also a wry, witty strength that is presented later. Her performance was unhindered except that she sometimes had to look down for reassurance in a script. It’s truly watching someone embody grace under pressure, and she’s got something to be proud of.
Technically, CLYBOURNE PARK is a miracle, and the physical aspects and design work continue Dirt Dogs’ reputation for excellence in production work. Mark A. Lewis offers impressive set design that results in one of the most beautiful spaces I’ve seen in any professional theater or otherwise. Travis Ammons provides great sound cues and helps set the scene with era-appropriate music as an opener to each act. Kris Phelps’ lights are also evocative and well-executed. You couldn’t ask for a better technical team than this.
Despite an onslaught of tragedy and mishap, CLYBOURNE PARK’s Dirt Dogs production is an engrossing theatrical evening. It’s a chance to revel in a brilliant script, watch a hugely talented cast of actors, and witness technical expertise. They have found grace and beauty in the face of myriad obstacles. The audience gave the company a well-deserved standing ovation as it opened to celebrate its triumph over adversity. In the end, they still managed to produce a show that asks the tough questions, never backs down from the truth, and perfectly captures what it means to be human. To hell with imperfections.
CLYBOURNE PARK runs through June 11 at the MATCH Complex in Midtown. The company does not apply any COVID protocols and masking is optional. The show lasts two hours and includes a fifteen-minute intermission.