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Chris Bohjalian Talks About His Play "The Club" which premieres at George Street Playhouse


By Charles Paolino

originally published: 02/25/2024

Chris Bohjalian Talks About His Play "The Club" which premieres at George Street Playhouse

"It's no time for mirth and laughter," George Ade wrote, "on the cold, gray dawn of the morning after."

And you can prove that by Chris Bohjalian's play, The Club, having its world premiere at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, February 27 through March 18.

The play opens on a scene that validates Ade’s vision: a suburban living room in 1968 on a Sunday morning after what started as a dinner party and evolved into a bacchanal. 

What happened here? A lot of drinking, certainly—too much, in fact. And more: an unwelcome message passed privately from one party-goer to another, and a few intimate encounters that, in the light of day, will be open to lively interpretations.

What occurs on that Sunday as the hungover adults regain self-awareness is played against the background of a tumultuous year: war in Vietnam and protests at home; the murders of Dr. King and Sen. Kennedy; the Civil Right Act and resistance to school busing and other forms of integration; the political ruin of Lyndon Johnson and the election of Richard Nixon.



 
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The householders in this scene are Richard and Anna Barrows and their 13-year-old daughter, Olive. The guests were John and Marianne Willows—John being Richard’s client at an advertising agency; and Peter and Angela Kendricks, black folks in a white neighborhood, hoping to join the country club where John chairs the membership committee and Richard has a vote.

As is almost always the case in his novels and plays, Bohjalian said, this story originated in an memory from his early life.

“Most of my work is awash in autobiographical minutiae,” said Bohjalian, author of more than 20 novels, three plays, and numerous articles. That was the case, for example, with his play Midwives, which had its world premiere at George Street in 2020. That play was based on his novel by the same name, and the germ of the novel was a dinner party at which he happened to sit next to a midwife.

“Even my novels that have nothing to do with the nuts and bolts of my life have parts of my childhood or young adulthood in them,” Bohjalian said. “Usually that’s not part of the main story, but smaller moments that lead to the bigger ones.”

Essential to the story of The Club is Olive, who is frankly critical of her parents’ boozy and socially tone-deaf lifestyle. She is discovered at the beginning of the play, sitting on a sofa amid the ruins of Saturday night, reading a comic book and sipping from the tumblers that weren’t drained or overturned.

Where did that image come from?

“When I began this play,” Bohjalian said, “I was thinking mostly about the little boy I was on Sunday mornings after my parents’ wild dinner parties the night before. I was that kid culling the cigarette butts and emptying the tumblers of whatever scotch was left in them.”



 
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Bohjalian said the level of drinking described in this play was not unusual among suburbanites Nixon described as “the silent majority.” 

“They might not have been smoking pot or doing mushrooms,” he said, “but—oh my gosh— did they drink!”

He noted that there’s a passage in the play in which a character boasts about his monthly liquor bill being larger than his mortgage payment.

“This was an era,” he said, “when people drank like crazy and did not have designated drivers. So, when I was writing this play, I was very conscious that it is a miracle in some ways that I made it to adulthood given the amount of booze that was in our house all the time.”

Bohjalian said he had a “love-hate” relationship with alcohol and, like Olive in the play, he sampled a lot:

“On the other hand, I saw how toxic the alcohol was and how it did lead to a lot of my parents’ fights. I was frequently watering down the booze during the week. I knew how much Cutty Sark I could pour down the sink and replace with water before anyone would notice.”

Olive, sipping from the abandoned drinks, is not unique among Bohjalian’s characters. He said that whenever there is young girl in his novels and plays, the chances are she is a female version of him as a boy.

As for the adults, Bohjalian said, “I wanted them to be absolutely real people we all could recognize, and I wanted them all to be aware of what’s going on outside of that living room. Some of them are excited about it, and some are scared about it, and some are unsure what to think. ‘Change is inevitable; growth is optional.’ I was thinking about that quote (by John C. Maxwell) a lot when I was writing this play.”

Bohjalian said he does not want the theme of the play to be obvious to the audience from the beginning, although the social circle and the excessive drinking are not incidental. Since no one in the theater will have seen the play before, he hopes that for the first 10 or 15 minutes, they will think it’s about one thing and then discover that it’s about something else entirely.

“With Midwives,” he said, “you think it’s about an unbelievably heroic midwife—and maybe she is—but as the play moves along, you find that everything is not as it seems.”



 
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None of this is clear to Bohjalian when he begins a project, he said: 

“When I begin a novel, I don’t know where it’s going. I start with a vague premise—an alcoholic flight attendant wakes up next to a dead body in Dubai. In this case, it was simply a young girl is trying to understand the mechanics of her parents’ marriage. Is there a desperation that leads to all of that drinking? I didn’t know it was about civil rights when I began it. I had germ of an idea, a living room in 1968, and I was off and running.

George Street is a good place to introduce a new play, Bohjalian said, and one of the reasons is the audience, which tends to be both curious and knowledgeable. He said he experienced that recently when he attended a performance of Charles Busch’s play Ibsen’s Ghost

“There aren’t a lot of audiences that will laugh at a joke about Peer Gynt,” Bohjalian said.

Having substantial experience in both genres, Bohjalian said he finds writing a stage play in some ways harder and in some ways easier than writing a novel. It’s harder, he said, because the playwright has to tell a story in 80 to 120 minutes and has to do it almost entirely with dialogue—no internal monologues or long passages of description or background.

“Here’s why it’s easier,” he said, “You’ve got a cast and crew. One of the things I learned with my very first play, Grounded, was that as a novelist I overwrite when I’m writing a play. Actors would tell me, ‘I don’t need this line. This is what acting is. I do this with my face. I do this with my reactions.’ 

“A play is also easier because you have an amazing set designer, an amazing sound engineer, and you have David Saint,” alluding to the artistic director at George Street who is directing this production. “When you have a really good cast along with a really good crew, I’m astonished at how easy my job is as a playwright.

“The play you will see on its feet is better than the play that we began workshopping a couple of weeks ago. A line here and a line there; a cut here and a cut there. The actors made it better, David Saint made it better.”



George Street Playhouse presents The Club from February 27 through March 18, 2024 at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. For ticket information, click here.



For more by Charles Paolino, visit his blog.

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