‘The Club’ depicts the stormy ’60s from the vantage point of the Jersey burbs

bohjalian club review


From left, Frederick Weller, Ali Marsh and Ryan George co-star in “The Club,” which is being presented by George Street Playhouse at The New Brunswick Performing Arts Center.

“The Club” is set in the suburbs of New Jersey — or as one character puts it, “the lily white burbs” — in late 1968. The title refers to a country club in town that has the nicest pool and tennis courts around, and is valuable for professional networking.

The play — written by Chris Bohjalian and currently being presented, in its world premiere, by The George Street Playhouse at The New Brunswick Performing Arts Center — concerns three couple who are friends.

Two of the men work together at an advertising company; the third is one of their clients. And two of the couples belong to the club; the third couple wants to join, but has been denied.

As you may have already guessed, two of the couples of white. The third — and the one that has been denied — is African-American.


From left, Ryan George, Samaria Nixon-Fleming, Skyler Hensley and Ali Marsh in “The Club.”

A bit of an obvious premise, maybe. But rest assured, Bohjalian has built a gripping play around it, with plenty of wry humor, a convincing sense of late-’60s atmosphere, and a great twist that adds an extra layer of unexpected tragedy. All I’ll say about the twist is, sometimes people end up doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.

The play, directed by GSP artistic director David Saint, takes place entirely in the stylish (check out the photo above) living room of one of the couples, Richard (Frederick Weller) and Anna (Ali Marsh). (The wonderful scenic design is by James Youmans.) We start out on the morning after a big party there. There is a wine stain on one of the couch pillows, empty bottles and glasses everywhere, and random stuff on the coffee table and carpet.

This expensively furnished room looks like a tornado hit it. But, we soon learn, this is a normal morning-after for one of this hard-drinking crowd’s parties.

“We’re too old to be hippies — and too young to be fogies,” says Richard.

Richard’s bluntly honest and often witty wife Anna is arguing with him because he drunkenly made out with someone else at the party. Anna, we learn later, may have had a similar dalliance, as well. As they bicker, their 13-year-old daughter Olive (Skyler Hensley) looks on with disdain and throws in an occasional sarcastic comment, but she has seen too much, even at this stage of her life, to get too judgmental about it all.

Peter (Ryan George) soon drops by. It’s Sunday morning, and he and Richard usually play tennis together on this day of the week. The discussion soon turns to the country club, and Peter’s failure to get in. Richard advises him to wait until next year and try again, but Peter asks him to lobby their mutual friend John (Brendan Ryan), who is the membership committee’s chairman and the son of the club’s president, and may have the power to get Peter in. Richard agrees.


From left, Brendan Ryan, Samaria Nixon-Fleming and Grace Experience in “The Club.”

That is not enough for Anna, though. She gets on the phone and invites Peter and his pregnant wife Angela (Samaria Nixon-Fleming), who writes for a local newspaper, over for drinks that night. Then Anna asks John and his significantly younger, hippie-ish wife Marion (Grace Experience) — the woman who was making out with Richard, the night before — to come to the house at the same time. Neither couple knows the other one is coming; Anna is engineering a showdown over the club-membership issue.

And that’s what happens, in a scene in which everyone drinks some more, pretenses of politeness are dropped, and everyone gets scathed, in one way or another. (Except, perhaps, the very-mature-for-her-age Olive, who represents hope for a less screwed-up future). It’s riveting.

On another level, it’s a head-spinning experience — at least for those who remember the ’60s — to be immersed in Bohjalian’s nonstop stream of social, political and cultural references. This actually starts before the play begins, as ’60s rock songs (by Jefferson Airplane, The Rolling Stones and so on) are heard on the theater’s sound system, and clips from ’60s TV shows (“The Flintstones,” “The Ed Sullivan Show”) and commercials (Coke, Barbie) are shown on the onstage video screens. Then, in the dialogue, there are references to the Nixon-vs.-Humphrey presidential race, the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, The Monterey Pop Festival, “Archie” comic books — Anna tells Olive she prefers “sparkplug” Veronica to “milquetoast” Betty — race riots in Newark and elsewhere, The New Christy Minstrels, Freedom Riders, Tang, miniskirts, Life magazine, letting your freak flag fly, Ethel Merman and so on.

At one point, Anna casually picks up a View-Master — remember those? — that is lying on a shelf, and looks at some pictures while someone else is talking.

Watching the play, I said to myself that Bohjalian must be old enough to remember this stuff first-hand. No one who is not from that era could pack in so many details. And sure enough, after the play was over, I read the mini-interview with him in the play’s program, in which he says that when he was writing it, “I began with my memories of my parents’ bacchanalian parties. It was the 1960s and the 1970s, and their soirees were legendary in our neighborhood. When one of the main characters in this play brags that the family’s liquor bill is larger than the monthly mortgage payment, that line comes straight from my parents’ boasts.”

The George Street Playhouse will present “The Club” at The New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through March 17. Visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.

The following performances will be available online, via live stream: March 15 at 8 p.m.; March 16 at 2 and 8 p.m.; March 17 at 2 p.m. Click HERE to order.

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