"Clybourne Park" at CNY Playhouse: Intense and compelling

The cast of "Clybourne Park" at CNY Playhouse. "Clybourne Park"

Who: Central New York Playhouse

Where: 3649 Erie Boulevard East, Syracuse, NY

When: Through Feb. 21

Tickets: $25/$35

Review by: Natalie Piontek

The CNY Playhouse staged an intense, compelling production of Bruce Norris’s satirical yet devastating play, “Clybourne Park,” this past weekend. Set on 406 Clybourne Street in central Chicago, “Clybourne Park” addresses racial tensions in 1949 and 2014 America.

In 1949, Aileen Kenneson plays Bev, an irritating yet endearing housewife whose son committed suicide after he returned from the Korean War. Russ, played by John Brackett, is Bev’s depressed and disgruntled husband; he passes his days in pajamas, joylessly eating Neapolitan ice cream and gazing absently into the distance. Brackett does a fine job of portraying a childless man’s desperation, rarely making eye contact with Bev, glancing about nervously and appearing perpetually distracted. Kenneson, likewise, adapts well to the character Bev, interrupting the racially-charged discussions between Russ and his neighbor, Karl (Austin Arlington), with a saccharinely sweet voice that makes audience members feel as uncomfortable and uneasy as the characters on set.

Karl is disturbed by the fact that an African-American couple is purchasing Russ and Bev’s home at 406 Clybourne, which Russ and Bev recently put up for sale. Arlington gives a painfully accurate portrayal of Karl, a young, conservative man, wringing his hands and shaking his head, who is fiercely resisting society’s move toward establishing racial equality.

The cast of "Clybourne Park" at CNY Playhouse. Photo by Amelia Beamis.

By 2014, some things have changed, but an underbelly of racial tension exists below the characters’ forced pleasantries. The area has developed into a predominantly black and also crime-ridden neighborhood, where Steve (Arlington) and his pregnant wife, Lindsey (Lauren Puente), are seeking to build a large new house. In doing so, they have to reach an agreement with an African-American couple, Lena (Annette Adams Brown) and Kevin (Albert Marshall), who want to preserve the neighborhood’s historical value.

Although all the characters came to peaceably negotiate, a comment made by Steve, who can no longer tolerate ignoring the racist issues underlying the negotiation (“Can’t we all just really talk about what’s going on here? You’re trying to say something without saying it”) sends all the characters into a frenzy. Racial slurs, homophobic and sexist slurs are suddenly being tossed left and right, and it’s evident that even though 50 years has passed, a great deal of largely ignored hostility still exists between the two races.

Karl tells Bev early in the play that knowledge is power. The play argues that contemporary Americans enact Bev’s response every day: “Then I choose to remain powerless,” she says.