Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Theater roundup 2: Provocative 'Clybourne'; a star turn for Gless

Kenneth Kay and Patti Gardner in Clybourne Park.


By Hap Erstein


African-Americans have federally sanctioned civil rights and the nation voted a black man into the White House.‭ ‬So we must have made substantial advances towards racial equality and co-existence since Lorraine Hansberry’s‭ ‬1959‭ ‬stage drama,‭ ‬A Raisin in the Sun,‭ ‬haven’t we‭?

Not necessarily,‭ ‬suggests playwright-provocateur Bruce Norris in his cynical satire‭ ‬Clybourne Park,‭ ‬which takes Hansberry’s work and stands it on its ear.‭ ‬Act one is set inside the Chicago house that the unseen Younger family is trying to buy,‭ ‬despite the objections of the bigoted white neighbors.‭ ‬Then in the second act,‭ ‬the play jumps ahead‭ ‬50‭ ‬years to show the house deteriorating,‭ ‬yet an affluent yuppie couple want to buy it to tear it down and build a McMansion that would dwarf the surrounding structures.‭

The racial insensitivities in both acts aim to make theatergoers uncomfortable and the go-for-the-throat cast at the Caldwell Theatre certainly manages that.‭ ‬Director Clive Cholerton has again brought to the area an edgy,‭ ‬challenging new play,‭ ‬married it to a nimble ensemble cast and further dusted off the cobwebs from this established South Florida stage company.

Both acts begin slowly,‭ ‬as Norris traffics in small talk and wordplay,‭ ‬but never doubt that he knows exactly how to bring his simmering stew to a boil.‭ ‬Particularly in the second half,‭ ‬as interested parties gather to read over a petition about the pending sale,‭ ‬polite dialogue degenerates into bitter recriminations and the slinging of pointedly outrageous racial jokes.

The cast members all double in roles as‭ ‬Clybourne Park shifts gears and zooms ahead to‭ ‬2009.‭ ‬Standouts include Kenneth Kay and Patti Gardner as the too-eager sellers of the house in the first act.‭ ‬Both are reacting to the death of their Korean War veteran son,‭ ‬he by wallowing on anguish and she by blithely denying the problem with a‭ ‘‬50s sitcom cheerfulness.‭ ‬Gregg Weiner,‭ ‬who played a couple of similar two-sided characters in Florida Stage’s recent‭ ‬Cane,‭ ‬has no civility filter as hatemonger Karl Linder,‭ ‬a supporting character.

Karen Stephens probably goes through the most extreme changes,‭ ‬from Gardner’s subservient maid to Lena,‭ ‬an assertive woman who knows how to flex her power muscles.‭ ‬And Margery Lowe gives one of her best comic performances as two different pregnant wives.‭ ‬Her first act character is hearing-impaired,‭ ‬possibly so Norris can make a point about communications difficulties or maybe just to make fun of the deaf.

With‭ ‬Clybourne Park,‭ ‬Norris shows he can sustain a tone of raucousness,‭ ‬while also delivering a thematic message.‭ ‬He may well offend some of the Caldwell audience,‭ ‬but those in synch with him should find plenty to laugh at and think about here.

CLYBOURNE PARK,‭ ‬Caldwell Theatre Co.,‭ ‬7901‭ ‬N.‭ ‬Federal Highway,‭ ‬Boca Raton.‭ ‬Continuing through Sunday,‭ ‬Feb.‭ ‬6.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$27-$75.‭ ‬Call:‭ (‬561‭) ‬241-7432‭ ‬or‭ (‬877‭) ‬245-7432.‭

‭ * * *

Sharon Gless in A Round-Heeled Woman.
(Photo by George Schiavone)


GableStage usually features edgier fare than playwright-director Jane Prowse’s audience-friendly tale of a sexagenarian’s search for,‭ ‬well,‭ ‬sex,‭ ‬A Round-Heeled Woman.‭ ‬But perhaps the Coral Gables company is experimenting with ways to broaden its audience as it considers moving to larger quarters in Coconut Grove,‭ ‬and who in his right mind would turn down an opportunity to showcase the remarkable Sharon Gless‭?

Gless,‭ ‬best known for her television work from‭ ‬Cagney‭ & ‬Lacey to‭ ‬Burn Notice,‭ ‬knows a good vehicle when she sees it.‭ ‬For some time now,‭ ‬she has been shepherding this memoir of former teacher Jane Juska from page to stage.‭ ‬In it,‭ ‬she gives such a touching and funny performance,‭ ‬fully inhabiting the character,‭ ‬often with a startling lack of vanity,‭ ‬in one of those rare ideal mergers of actress and role.‭

Having given up on finding Mr.‭ ‬Right,‭ ‬66-year-old,‭ ‬long celibate Juska places an ad in the‭ ‬New York Review of Books seeking a man interested in having sex with her.‭ ‬She adds,‭ “‬If you want to talk first,‭ ‬Trollope works for me.‭” ‬Of course she meant Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope,‭ ‬but the reference gets much misunderstood by her respondents,‭ ‬as the play goes through the inevitable series of disastrous matches.

Gless dominates the production as she frequently confides her feelings to the audience,‭ ‬but this is by no means a one-woman show.‭ ‬The rest of the six-member cast all play multiple roles,‭ ‬from Juska’s disapproving and a little scandalized friends‭ (‬Laura Turnbull,‭ ‬Kim Ostrenko‭)‬,‭ ‬the unsuitable suitors‭ (‬Stephen G.‭ ‬Anthony,‭ ‬Howard Elfman‭) ‬and Antonio Amadeo as Juska’s estranged son and a persistent would-be lover half her age.‭ ‬Ostrenko and Amadeo also play characters from a Trollope novel who float through the play,‭ ‬reminding Juska how different literature is from life.

The play has nuggets of wisdom about not giving up on life and reaching for second chances,‭ ‬but the reason tickets are selling so briskly is Gless.‭ ‬Performances have just been extended a week to Feb.‭ ‬6,‭ ‬so consider this a second chance you have just been offered.

A ROUND-HEELED WOMAN,‭ ‬GableStage,‭ ‬Biltmore Hotel,‭ ‬1200‭ ‬Anastasia Ave.,‭ ‬Coral Gables.‭ ‬Through Sunday,‭ ‬Feb.‭ ‬6.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$37.50-$45.‭ ‬Call:‭ (‬305‭)‬ 445-1119.

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