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THEATER REVIEW: “Clybourne Park” is not your grandma’s play, so be forewarned

The sign in the lobby at San Diego Repertory Theatre says “Presented in blunt colorful language and stress for all.”

The warning refers to their production of Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park,” the 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning riff on Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 classic “A Raisin In The Sun.”

Hansberry’s play recounts the experiences of the African-American Younger family as they plan a move out of the Southside Chicago ghetto and into a predominantly white neighborhood, and the concomitant racist attempts of the new neighborhood to keep them from moving in.

Norris upends the plot with two acts separated by 50 years. He picks up the story in 1959, with Russ (Mark Pinter) and Bev (Sandy Campbell) packing for a move to the Chicago suburbs after a tragic event in their house.

A neighborhood resident named Karl Linder (Jason Heil) appears in both plays; in “Raisin” he tried to bribe the Youngers not to move into his neighborhood. In “Clybourne Park,” he attempts to keep Russ and Bev from selling to a black family.

In the second act of “Clybourne Park,” a white couple – Steve (Heil again) and his wife Lindsey (Amanda Leigh Cobb) – want to buy the Southside property in order to raze it and build a much larger house. This time, community activist Lena (Monique Gaffney) and her husband Kevin (Matt Orduña) try to stop the transaction, though the beef in 2009 seems to be not race but the height of the proposed structure.

Norris’ premise is an interesting one, and he does (especially in the explosively vulgar second act) have a facility for stripping the psyche bare and exposing everybody’s inherent biases, be they race- or gender-based. (Don’t take Grandma or anyone who can’t take rough language and racist jokes.)

But for me, the theatrical promise was not fulfilled. Much of the dialogue seems inconsequential. Case in point: the first scene, in which Russ and Bev ponder earth-shattering questions like what people who live in Naples are called, what you call somebody who lives in Cairo, and what the capital of Morocco is.

The characters, all wonderfully played, are nonetheless all of a piece morally and ethically speaking, so that when conflict (i.e., prejudice of whatever stripe) arises, there is no one to root for and we’re left with the “blunt, colorful language” of the warning but no one to care about.

But don’t fault the production for these shortcomings. Director Sam Woodhouse has marshaled a top-notch cast and design team. Each of the seven actors plays two roles (except for Jason Maddy, who plays three), requiring major shifts in costume and approach (at least until the mudslinging starts) – and every one of them is flawless.

Pinter aces his roles as Russ and Dan, the second-act workman fixing up the Younger place. Campbell is properly annoying as Bev, the whiny ’50s wife, and as attorney Kathy.

Gaffney and Orduña are excellent in their transition from first-act servant class to mouthy activists. Cobb does well in two thankless roles, one the very pregnant, deaf Betsy; the other, the clueless Lindsey, trying to negotiate for the Younger house.

Heil comes closest to a guy you could hate, absurdly arguing as realtor Karl in Act 1 that the Youngers shouldn’t buy here because their children probably can’t relate to skiing, and schoolchildren here take a ski trip every year. And in Act 2, as Lindsey’s husband Steve, he lobbies for the demolition and rebuilding project.

The underused Maddy does well in a trio of smaller roles, the most interesting being the priest in Act 1.

Robin Sanford Roberts has designed a terrific set, cleverly capable of between-acts disintegration.

Jennifer Brawn Gittings’ era-appropriate costumes add to the atmosphere, as do Sherrice Kelly’s lighting and the sound design of Tom Jones.

The details

“Clybourne Park” plays through Feb. 10 at San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm. Selected Saturdays at 2 pm and selected Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 pm.

For tickets: 619-544-1000 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.