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The American Family in Decline

Two of the most talked about plays of the season close this weekend—both offering portraits of the American Family in decline.  The better of these two plays is worth racing out to see this weekend (though a Broadway transfer could follow) at Playwrights Horizons.  Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park is a two-act riff on Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 drama A Raisin in the Sun—and an early front-runner for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize.

One of my favorite things about Clybourne Park is that its connection to Hansberry’s classic is subtle.  If you aren’t familiar with the scenario of Raisin or the Younger family, Clybourne Park still provides two meaty scenes: Act I is an a unflinching look at the claustrophobia of suburban life during the Eisenhower era, and Act 2 is a noisy, hilarious tableau of our disconnected present.

If you know Raisin, these scenes take on extra weight and value.  Norris forces us to see how one family’s dreams are always built on another family’s misfortune—and sometimes nightmares.  (The play also makes clear just how families and real estate are so intensely related in America—an especially interesting theme in these post-housing boom years.)

One could write pages about the nuanced way Norris weaves his created family histories with the Youngers (and no doubt theses are already being written at Columbia and NYU) but what makes Clybourne Park so worth watching is the pitch-perfect cast.  Everyone in the seven-person ensemble brings richness and insight to their characterizations—if one had to pick a stand out, for me it would be Jeremy Shamos (as a rotary club racist in Act I and an oblivious BoBo in Act II)—but honestly, this is about as good an ensemble cast as you’re going see this season.

A Lie of the MindNext door from Playwrights Horizons, another top-drawer cast has been assembled at The New Group to revive Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind.  Despite the recognizable names (Keith Carradine, Laurie Metcalf, Frank Whaley, Josh Hamilton) and hype, Ethan Hawke’s production is not worth the effort.  Ben Brantley’s wildly overheated review in the New York Times (“a 20th-century masterwork of a family portrait to be compared with Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Harold Pinter’s Homecoming.” Really?) has made this a hot ticket; but the staging not only doesn’t deliver, it makes Shepard’s play feel dated.

Hawke has some interesting ideas—namely the incidental music made on-stage by a group named “Gaines”—but his directorial choices tend to simply let the actors do their own thing.  With a cast like this, it’s hard to argue with those instincts, but sadly, the performances just don’t add up.

When Lie of the Mind premiered in 1985 (with an equally starry cast: Harvey Keitel, Amanda Plummer, Aidan Quinn) it’s easy to see why the play struck a chord: artful and edgy depictions of the underside of the American dream were not as prevalent.  Today, we’re awash in indie films and primetime dramas (think: Hung, Weeds, etc.) that show American families in less than a flattering light.

Hawke’s production doesn’t help Shepard’s play. His actors all act in the low-key naturalism of Sundance films, which serves to make Lie of the Mind feel like yet another grungy melodrama on IFC that you can flip the channel from.  (This mustiness was only exaggerated by the fresh, jauntiness that two Irish actors brought to Shepard’s newest play, Ages of the Moon, that recently played at the Atlantic).  There are worse ways to spend an afternoon or evening than three hours of great actors performing Shepard, but why jump through hoops to snag a ticket for the hit Off-Broadway play of 1985 when next door, a better cast is performing the hit Off-Broadway play of 2010?

Image: Laurie Metcalf, Josh Hamilton, & Marin Ireland in A Lie of the Mind. Photo by Monique Carboni. 

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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