Clybourne Park, a piece of theatrical real estate definitely worth a view - at Cambridge Arts Theatre

Clybourne Park

Clybourne Park - Credit: Archant

Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, May 14.

Clybourne Park is a very valuable piece of theatrical property which comes to Cambridge with a stack of awards – not least the Tony and Pulitzer Prize. But is it over valued? This is a play about a property and what happens when thy neighbours are not much loved. As for the play, like any old house, it has its charms but not a few cracks in the foundations.

Set in a fictitious suburb of Chicago, the play jumps 50 years over a longish evening. The first half is set at the rump end of the 1950s. We are in a pre-Kennedy, pre-civil rights age of casual racism, sexism and many other unpleasant isms. Imagine a suburban world of TV’s Mad Men (though oddly no one smokes in this brutally un-PC world). Bruce Norris’ play is packed with high-energy dialogue in which characters meet, collide and mostly shout at each other.

There is much wit and laugh-out loud humour in the piece as we observe a whole slew of neighbourhood issues. The 1950s couple Russ and Bev are moving out of their solidly suburban house in a hitherto all-white area. They have sold their pile to a black family – the first in Clybourne Park – with argumentative results especially from local WASP Rotarian Karl (played by Ben Deery who spends most of the play in a state of apoplectic rage). Russ and Bev exchange inconsequential banter concealing a personal tragedy. Their black maid Francine hovers in the background, invisible yet exuding a quiet dignity. Calm on troubled waters is attempted by Jim, an ineffectual local priest whose own views on the entry of black folks into his parish are hardly ‘brotherhood of man’.

This is a play about unsaid, unspoken truths; the language we use to cover up what we really feel. If un-PC language offends, stay away from this play because there are some excruciatingly embarrassing scenes not least the telling of some offensive racist jokes as the verbal sparring gets serious. The time jumps are clever and the most satisfying elements tease the audience into spotting parallels between the world of PC now, and the bigoted world of then. Has anything really changed in the last 50 years; behind the gloss of more anti-racist language, has blind prejudice been vanquished?

With such serious issues at stake, you might think that the play tackles its subjects with dramatic depth. But this is not so. The characters are entertainingly vocal and there is a torrent of US-style wit. But the play can’t quite decide if it’s a wordy comedy or something deeper. Most of the people in the play are little more than caricatures although the acting standards are wonderfully high and worth the ticket price alone. There is something a little unsatisfying in the writing and structure but this piece of theatrical real estate is definitely worth a view.