Clybourne Park, The Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court, London

We have President Obama in the White House, but just how harmonious are race relations in less prestigious neighbourhoods? The Royal Court poses the question with Bruce Norris’s brilliant, unsettling Clybourne Park, which goes to work on subcutaneous prejudice like a needle on a splinter.

Norris’s last play at this address froze the laughter on your face by pushing at the boundaries of middle-class liberalism. Here it is tolerance in present-day America that is under scrutiny and Norris pegs the moments when bigotry peeps through with toe-curling precision. His weapon is comedy and boy can he use it: he makes you laugh then wish that you hadn’t.

He focuses on that most grisly of battlegrounds: property. We visit a pleasant family home in a desirable Chicago neighbourhood twice: first in 1959, as a white couple prepare to sell the house to a black family, then in 2009, as a white couple prepare to move into the now mixed neighbourhood and rebuild the house. Both acts begin with an uneasy meeting to discuss the move; both slide disturbingly quickly from pleasantries to uglier exchanges.

Though the play never budges from the hallway, Norris pulls the shifting state of the nation in through the front door. In 1959, Russ and Bev, the couple selling the house, are trying to escape the ghost of their dead son, a traumatised vet of the Korean war. The indifference of the local community has played a part in their decision to go, so when a community spokesperson turns up to complain that a black buyer will bring property prices down, he gets short shrift from Russ. There follows an argument in front of the family’s black maid and her husband.

In 2009, the black couple are residents and chat comfortably with their new neighbours about work colleagues and holidays. But though much has changed, resentments soon emerge, as the resident couple suggest that the newcomers’ plans to rebuild the house take no heed of the neighbourhood’s complex history.

The characters’ linguistic contortions to keep within politically correct boundaries make for wicked comedy, which Dominic Cooke’s beautifully pitched production manages with great timing. But that instinct for precision also ensures that the serious import of the play emerges. There is a moment in the first act when the bereaved couple, superbly played by Steffan Rhodri and Sophie Thompson, sit in silence amid the packing cases, conveying a wealth of inarticulate sorrow.

The same cast play similar types in both acts and the performances would be hard to better. Martin Freeman, in particular, excels twice as the decent face of uptight white resentment, with Sarah Goldberg as his horrified wife. Provocative, troubling comedy. ()

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