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Mr. Lindner’s Neighborhood: Welcome To ‘Clybourne Park’

Things start to get tense in "Clybourne Park" with Philana Mia, Michael Kaye, Marvelyn McFarlane and DeLance Minefee.  (Courtesy of Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo.

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BOstON — Remember that Chicago house in a white neighborhood that the Younger family were going to move to in “A Raisin in the Sun”? If you’re a regular theatergoer here you’re going to be seeing a lot of it.

The Huntington Theatre Company begins previews of “A Raisin in the Sun” Friday night for a March 13 opening and we’ll get to that iconic American play by Lorraine Hansberry play next week.

More of the moment, literally, is the SpeakEasy Stage Company production (at the Boston Center for the Arts through March 30) of Bruce Norris’s “Clybourne Park,” winner of the 2011 Pulitzer, the 2012 Tony and the 2013 hearts of most of the people, it seemed, at Sunday’s spot-on SpeakEasy opening, which takes place in the same house.

You could call the first act a prequel and the second act a sequel to “Raisin” though that’s not quite accurate. The first act takes place in the living room as the husband and wife played by American Repertory Theater alumni Thomas Derrah and Paula Plum, two of Boston’s best, debate the derivation of Neapolitan as he’s cozily polishing off an ice cream carton while reading the National Geographic (true to its period, no photo on the cover) and listening to Sinatra on the radio.

Director M. Bevin O’Gara knew what she was doing in choosing this cast as each passes the test and then some. There’s something about the SpeakEasy stage that seems to engender great ensemble work and that’s certainly the case here.

They’re surrounded by cartons as they’ve sold the house to the Youngers. A black house cleaner is helping them and soon they’ll be joined by her husband, the parish priest, and one other couple – a deaf woman and her husband, the notorious Karl Lindner. He’s the one white character in “Raisin,” the head of the homeowners’ association that tries to bribe the Youngers into not moving into the white neighborhood.

Lindner has joined in on the others to tell Russ and Bev (Derrah and Plum) that, perhaps unbeknownst to them they have sold the house to a black family and will, therefore, be responsible for destroying the white enclave and driving down the property values for everybody else.

In less talented hands, the debate would turn self-righteous and, in fact, Russ and Bev are interested in doing the right thing. But they have their own self-centered reasons for wanting to move out — their son hanged himself in the house after coming back from the Korean War.

Did I mention that Norris is a very funny writer? Yes, amid the racism and the hangings and the haranguings, Norris manages to balance tragedy and comedy in a very intriguing way. As when Karl starts crossexamining the housecleaner as a way to show that different ethnicities don’t mix.

“Francine,” he asks, “Do you ski?” And after browbeating her and her husband for a while he suggests:

And this is my point. The children who attend St Stanislaus. Once a year we take the middle schoolers up to Indianhead mountain, and I can tell you, in all the time I’ve been there, I have not once seen a colored family on those slopes. Now, what accounts for that? Certainly not any deficit in ability, so what I have to conclude is that, for some reason there is just something about the pastime of skiing that doesn’t appeal to the Negro community. And feel free to prove me wrong. But you’ll have to show me where to find the skiing Negroes!

Francine, Bev and Karl’s wife meekly stand by as the men get more and more angry at each other. But the meek shall inherit the second act. Plum, Marvelyn McFarlane (Francine in the first act) and Philana Mia (Mrs. Lindner) act up a storm in the second as totally different characters. Boston theatergoers know what a great actress Plum is, but the other two are hilarious in the second.

As the action shifts to the America of 2009, the six characters sit around discussing legal matters attached to, what, the neighborhood? The Younger house? Norris purposefully keeps us in the dark, but we gradually figure out the white family has just bought the house.

And how things have changed in Mr. Lindner’s neighborhood. The two couples banter while the lawyers humorously haggle and Derrah, now a workman, tramples through the house.

There’s an undercurrent of tension, though. Is it the self-satisfied aura of everyone getting along in post-racial America? Or is there a whiff of gentrification in the air? That Jewish-owned supermarket (itself a source of tension, originally) is now a Whole Foods. Or is it just the knowledge that there has to be more to these echoes of the first act than mere cleverness?

And lest you forget, Norris is a very funny writer. There’s a torrent of ethnic jokes that blows all the smugness on parade up to then. The device of middle-class people descending into incivility is not a new one, but this may be the funniest of the genre. And it isn’t only the political incorrectness of it all, but the reaction on the faces around the living room.

If nothing else, “Clybourne Park” is a casting director’s dream. Can the actress playing Lena go both meek and bold? Can the one playing Russ and Dan be both smart and stupid? Director M. Bevin O’Gara knew what she was doing in choosing this cast as each passes the test and then some. There’s something about the SpeakEasy stage that seems to engender great ensemble work and that’s certainly the case here.

In the end none of us knows as much as we think we know about race or walking in another person’s shoes. I don’t know that such a sentiment is the profoundest thing to say about race in America yesterday or today. But then I don’t know that this is ultimately a play about race. I won’t give away the stirring coda of the play, but I will say that it does do something rather amazing in making Langston Hughes’ poem, “A Dream Deferred,” that gave birth to the term, “raisin in the sun,” apply to everyone. Black and white.

And that is profound. And “Clybourne Park” is another feather in SpeakEasy’s cap.

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