Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park—the first work to win the triple crown of the Pulitzer, Tony and Britain's Olivier—is one of the most produced plays among regional companies. I haven't seen the play elsewhere, but I'm sure Portland Center Stage's bracing production could contend with the best of them: Norris' script is acerbic, smart and frequently uproarious, and the PCS cast, under director Chris Coleman, is superb. As in The Pain and the Itch, produced last year at Third Rail, Norris goes for the jugular. But unlike in that play, Clybourne's characters retain shreds of likeability even while telling racist jokes and treading taboo waters. All told, it makes for a full-throttle experience that claws at our conceptions about race, prejudice and social propriety.
The play's title comes from Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 work A Raisin in the Sun, in which a black family prepares to move into a fictional, predominantly white Chicago neighborhood called Clybourne Park. Norris' play also begins in 1959, but it centers instead on the white couple that have just sold their house. But ditzy Bev (the sparkling Sharonlee McLean) and brooding Russ (a tense and reactive Sal Viscuso) don't know the new family is black, so community representative Karl (Gavin Hoffman, balancing dweebiness with impertinence) visits them in an attempt to halt the sale. The second act skips forward 50 years, with the bungalow fallen into disrepair—broken blinds, dirty molding, peeling wallpaper. In those intervening years, white flight has transformed the area's demographics, and now a white couple hopes to move into the gentrifying area.
This parallel structure, with seven actors playing a different character in each act, is more than clever conceit. It's a riveting dramatic framework that highlights the stubborn intractability of race issues in America, as well as our desperate fumbles to discuss them in a meaningful—or even intelligible—way. In the first act, we see the barefaced racism of Karl contrasted with the well-meaning condescension of Bev. A half century later, the characters are no more articulate, no less hamstrung by euphemisms and equivocations. "Half my friends are black!" yelps one character. When Lena (a taut Brianna Horne) brings up slavery, homebuyer Steve (Hoffman) throws himself on the floor, writhing and beating his fists as his face turns red. "We get it, OK?" he barks. "And we apologize. But what good does it do if we perpetually fall into the same, predictable little euphemistic tap dance around the topic?" It's as corrosive as it is cathartic.
SEE IT: Clybourne Park is at the Gerding Theater, 128 NW 11th Ave., 445-3700. 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Sundays, 2 pm Sundays and select Saturdays, noon Thursdays through May 5. $39-$65.