CLYBOURNE PARK by Bruce Norris, directed by Joel Greenberg (Studio 180/Canadian Stage). At Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley). Runs to April 28, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday 1:30 pm and Saturday 2 pm. $22-$49, some Monday pwyc. 416-368-3110. See listing. Rating: NNNN
The mantra for almost any real estate deal is location, location, location.
In Bruce Norris's award-winning Clybourne Park, a Studio 180/Canadian Stage co-pro, the deal is also tied to racism.
Covering 50 years in the life of a suburban Chicago house, the play demonstrates that while social niceties might change, underlying attitudes are more inflexible.
In 1959, a shorter commute to work and a recent tragedy convince Russ (Michael Healey) and Bev (Maria Ricossa) to sell their home; things become more complicated when the meddling Karl (Mark McGrinder) reveals that the purchasers are a black family.
The white characters toss this uncomfortable issue and others back and forth while Francine (Audrey Dwyer), the black maid, and her husband, Albert (Sterling Jarvis), both pretty well ignored, overhear the arguments.
The second act takes place 50 years later, when a white couple (McGrinder and Kimwun Perehinec) wants to buy the now-dilapidated house and change its structure. The local homeowners committee (Dwyer and Jarvis) has some questions for the potential purchasers, not all of which deal with architecture.
The house itself is arguably another character in the play. David Boechler's original design, executed by Jung-Hye Kim and lit by Kimberly Purtell, moves us believably from a comfortable family dwelling to a ramshackle building whose bones are showing. Lyon Smith's soundscape nicely contrasts the two time periods.
Possibly in a nod to its more relaxed, less pressured period setting, the action of the first act is sometimes slow and doesn't always ignite. But under director Joel Greenberg, the second is sharp and funny, making its points through unsettling laughs and nicely drawn characters. Everyone uses politically correct language to mask various condescending attitudes, though they're all aware of the elephant in the room.
The only thing nastier than a racist joke, apparently, is trying to explain why it's funny. But as the material gets more and more insulting, it also becomes frantically amusing, ending with lots of feet in lots of mouths.
Norris's clever writing draws parallels between the two acts, some obvious (Perehinec plays McGrinder's pregnant spouse in both time periods) and some less so, though repetitions and echoes often tell us how some things have changed: a mention of skiing, a clock ringing 4 pm, an argument about national capitals.
The high-class acting helps make the show a winner, with everyone playing two (and in one case three) characters. Dwyer's parts are women whose anger is barely kept in check, while Jarvis's share an obliging concern to take care of others, which invariably angers his spouse. Jeff Lillico's hearty priest and organizing lawyer score points, too, as do McGrinder and Perehinec's not-always-loving couples.
The standouts, though, are Healey and Ricossa. As Russ in 1959 and Dan, a rough workman in 2009, Healey has the wonderful ability to play for broad comedy one minute and reveal deep emotion the next; his sense of timing in knowing how to manipulate tone is infallible.
Ricossa's two roles, the seemingly calm Bev and Kathy, a smart-toned lawyer in the second act, are beautifully handled. Despite her seeming control, Bev is a fragile creature, arguably the delicate heart of this play. She faces a future of quiet desperation, a fact underlined when the play suddenly leaps back in time with a simple scene that drains away the previous laughter to reveal a touching humanity.