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Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013

A Changing Neighborhood

‘Clybourne Park’ brings social hilarity to the Rep

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Viewers never cease to be amazed at the finesse and razor-sharp timing, which the Milwaukee Rep, at its best, brings to tricky-to-stage new works. Just such a work is Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer Prize-winning, wickedly funny, relentlessly provocative comedy-drama, Clybourne Park.

Set in 1959 and devised as a sequel to Lorraine Hansberry’s classic, A Raisin in the Sun, Clybourne Park’s central drama involves a white family being discouraged from selling their home to a Negro family, although they themselves have been stigmatized by their community for the death of an allegedly guilty soldier son accused of war crimes. Their black maid stands by watching the fur fly as the rest of the superlative cast exchanges endless witty barbs with breathless precision. Heading the production are brilliant and irrepressible local actor, Lee E. Ernst, and Mark Clements, whose work as director is pitch-perfect. Belly-laugh humor, rather than social conflict, dominates the proceedings, much to the audience’s vociferous delight.

The second act moves foreword, at times disconcertingly so, to the year 2009, and the eyebrow-raising graffiti and dilapidation of the same house speak volumes to the changing neighborhood. Now a white couple, keen on urban redevelopment, seeks to move into what has become a predominantly black area. But this shift to a contemporary social mindset has not changed the stakes too dramatically, and a horrifyingly funny pitched battle ensues between neighbors over territory and legacy—a battle that sarcastically echoes upfront racial humor. A sophisticated stab at a latter-day gentility leads into some of the most satirical and wildly funny exchanges ever seen on the Rep’s stage, scenes requiring split-second timing that constantly delights the audience.

Cast members take dual roles to cover the time span. Great performances include turns by Gerard Neugent as an unhappy neighbor, Greta Wohlrabe as a flaky blonde, Marti Gobel as the maid and Grant Goodman as the weak-kneed minister. Clybourne Park illustrates how comedy can be the best forum for difficult social issues.

The show runs through Feb. 24 at the Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse, 108 E. Wells St. For tickets, call 414-224-9490 or visit milwaukeerep.com.
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