“The Club” looks at the limitations of good intentions

The company in George Street Playhouse's 2024 production of THE CLUB - Photos by T. Charles Erickson
The company in George Street Playhouse's 2024 production of THE CLUB (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
The company in George Street Playhouse's 2024 production of THE CLUB (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
The company in George Street Playhouse’s 2024 production of THE CLUB (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

George Street Playhouse offers the world premiere of Chris Bojahlian’s play The Club. The play, set in a New Jersey suburb on an October Sunday in 1968, offers an uncomfortable look at racial relations then, and seems to ask us if much has changed today.

We are introduced to the Barrows family, who have hosted a cocktail party the prior evening. Richard (Frederick Weller) and Anna (Ali Marsh) are arguing over how much attention he was paying to one of the female guests the night before, within earshot of their 13-year-old daughter Olive (Skyler Hensley). As the argument continues, it turns to the topic of the country club application of their friends, Peter and Angela Kendricks (Ryan George and Samaria Nixon-Fleming), a Black couple. Richard, who is on the membership committee at the club, is unwilling to discuss the committee’s decision or even how the committee works, citing confidentiality. Under Anna’s continuing barrage, he finally admits the Kendricks have been rejected. Anna gears up to “fix” the situation – by throwing another get-together that afternoon with the Kendricks, committee head John Willows (Brendan Ryan), and his much-younger wife Marion (Grace Experience). The social gathering leads to many revelations, none of which are pleasant.

The cast, directed by David Saint, does their best to bring their characters to life. Especially noteworthy is Hensley’s young teenager, who avoids the perils of having her character be either sarcastically self-aware or condescending to her elders. Nixon-Fleming’s mother-to-be peels back layers of civility to reveal a mother tigress, fighting for a more fair life for her expected child. And Ryan’s committee chair, while a little too smooth for comfort, is not the kind of villain most would expect him to be.

Where I think playwright Bohjalian errs is in not being able to tie the racial “common wisdom” of the 1960s to that of today. The Club is a one-act play that cries out for a second act – possibly one that shows an older Olive and the adult Kendricks’ child dealing with racism, and what lessons if any Olive may have learned then that she carries with her later.

George Street’s design team – scenic designer James Youmans, costume designer Lisa Zinni, lighting designer Tyler Micoleau, and sound designer Scott Killian – have outdone themselves in recreating the “modern designs” of the late 60s, coming up with one of the best stage worlds ever seen in a George Street production.

The Club has the germ of an intriguing play about casual racism then and now, and I would hope that Chris Bohjalian returns to and refines this work. As he proved in the adaptation of his novel Midwives to the stage, Bohjalian is a playwright of talent and promise, and I look forward to his next theatrical efforts. The Club is not without value, with its wit and its plot revelations, and while I believe it falls a little short of its aim, I also believe that this is a play that audiences will find interesting.

The Club is presented by the George Street Playhouse at the Arthur Laurents Theatre in the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through Mar. 17th, 2024. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit georgestplayhouse.org or call 732-246-7717.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.