By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 25, 2010; C01
That pleasing noise you hear emanating from the stage of Woolly Mammoth Theatre is the sound of eight actors clicking. In the smashing ensemble work of "Clybourne Park," Woolly offers up one of its feistiest, funniest evenings in years.
The question playwright Bruce Norris is asking in his buzz-saw sharp new comedy gets to a perpetual thorniness in American life: Will we ever, ever figure out how to talk to each other confidently across the racial demilitarized zone? Social barriers can come down, neighbors can grow more tolerant -- a black man can even be elected president. But will there ever come a time when we'll all feel secure enough in our biases, as well as the more generous facets of our natures, to level with one another?
Norris makes the point in this delectable comedy of inadvertent bad manners, stylishly shepherded by Howard Shalwitz, that even though progress has been made in spreading the gospel of civility, not all the lessons have sunk in. He cleverly divides his play in two, setting both halves in the same sturdy home in an old-line Chicago neighborhood, a house whose architectural imprint comes warmly to life in James Kronzer's superb design. (Check out the cool extra audience seating at the back of the stage, behind the dining-room picture window.)
The playwright draws intriguing inferences: This is the house the unseen white family of "A Raisin in the Sun" -- Lorraine Hansberry's groundbreaking 1959 drama about racial integration -- has sold to the Youngers, the black family that tries to move in and faces nothing but white hostility. In "Clybourne's" first act, we eavesdrop on the story of those white housesellers, Russ (Mitchell Hebert) and Bev (Jennifer Mendenhall), and the pressures they're subjected to when white neighbors -- the superficially supportive reverend Jim (Michael Glenn) and a more confrontational Rotarian from around the block, Karl (Cody Nickell) -- try to undo the deal.
After intermission, we hopscotch over the tumultuous social and economic cross-currents of the ensuing decades to 2009, when the house, now a fixture of a solidly black neighborhood, is in the process of being torn down by its new owners, an affluent white couple (Kimberly Gilbert and Nickell, again). Now the tension comes from the opposite direction: The black neighbors, including Kevin and Lena (Jefferson A. Russell and Dawn Ursula), have filed a petition against the renovation, because the new structure will be taller than the existing houses. And of course, what hangs in the air is the suspicion that perhaps it's not the height that is unsettling the neighborhood.
As he demonstrated before at Woolly, with his post-colonial African satire, "The Unmentionables," Norris has the Shavian urge to gather people of divergent passionate attitudes into an enclosed space and watch the fur fly. If at times you begin to worry that we're going to wander into the heavily-trod turf of political incorrectness -- the terrain say, of the old hit sitcom "All in the Family" -- Norris has more than the puncturing of stereotypes in mind. To a deeply satisfying degree, he pushes social trends in the two epochs up against one another. In 1959, for instance, the white couple is moving out so that Russ can be closer to his job in the burgeoning suburbs; in 2009, the white couple is moving into the city, to be closer to their jobs in a revived downtown.
But it's the dramatist's sophisticated take on the treacherousness of language -- the way we eventually unmask ourselves through words, no matter how hard we try to prettify them -- that prompts "Clybourne's" big laughs. Near the end of Act 1, as Nickell's terrific Karl attempts in seemingly polite terms to reveal why it would be wrong for Russ to sell the house to blacks, he turns to the husband of Russ and Bev's black housekeeper to find out if he's ever skiied. He's gleeful after Jefferson Russell's Albert tells him no. "And this is my point!" Karl exclaims -- as if the races were meant to remain apart until they shared expensive weekend pastimes.
You'll come up with your own list of supple ironies, whether they emerge in the evening's more serious themes -- in the way, for example, Russ and Bev can't articulate their anger over the death of a loved one -- or in the overreaction of Gilbert's high-strung Lindsey in the more raucous Act 2, after learning of the grimmer side of the property's history. All the way through, you'll appreciate the giddy manner in which resentments act like a truth serum. Offensive remarks arise despite the best efforts of these well-behaved people to suppress them.
Comedy of this accomplished order requires the casting of commensurate talent, and here Shalwitz's instincts are impeccable. It's tough to know whom to single out in an ensemble when all the actors save one are called on to portray two very distinct roles, so let's spread the applause. As the slowly imploding Russ, the excellent, utterly convincing Hebert has one of his most rewarding parts in a long time. Mendenhall's always good, but Nickell, in a pair of droll turns, is revealed here as a true standout player.
Ursula and Russell construct persuasive couples in both eras. In Act 2 they show a special astuteness at the art of suffering through petty indignities: You can detect in Ursula's stony gaze the contained fury of a character who's had to bite her tongue once too often. Glenn is effortlessly funny as a minister so earnest he makes sincerity seem a sin, and Gilbert does sublime double duty as a mousy wife and an entitled yuppie.
Helen Huang's array of period-perfect costumes rounds out a night that goes oh so right.
by Bruce Norris. Directed by Howard Shalwitz. Lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Matt Otto. With Chris Dinolfo. About 2 hours 10 minutes. Through April 11 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. Visit http://www.woollymammoth.net or call 202-393-3939.