The Eclectic Society

Walnut Street's new production illuminates important issues, but needs serious editing.

By J. Cooper Robb
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Feb. 16, 2010

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Bros before foes: Floyd (Carl Clemons-Hopkins, right) is the first African-American allowed into Tom Rockwell's (Dan Amboyer) Eclectic Society.

Years ago the Walnut Street Theatre was Philly’s home of new plays. In its heyday as a Broadway launching pad, the Walnut presented the world premieres of such noted works as A Streetcar Named Desire and A Raisin in the Sun . Unfortunately Eric Conger’s The Eclectic Society isn’t in the same league as those classics.

Set in 1963, in the early days of the civil rights movement, the story takes place in the house belonging to the elite Eclectic Society, a fraternity dedicated to the Socratic ideals of reason and self-restraint.

The society’s president Tom Rockwell (known as “Rock” and ably played by Dan Amboyer) is the captain of the football team and the student council president. He’s engaged to a rich, pretty co-ed named Tina (Julianna Zinkel) and his entire life is mapped out. A natural leader, Rock seems destined to a life of country clubs, board rooms and financial security.

Rock’s chief adversary is the antagonistic Sean (Paul Felder). A macho, blue-collar guy from Boston, Sean is an aggressive bigot who bullies others in the house and treats minorities with disdain.

The Society’s first African-American member is Floyd (Carl Clemons-Hopkins). A star football player, Floyd is far from a civil rights crusader, but he has a strong sense of self and though he gets little stage time, he’s easily one of the play’s most intriguing characters.

Friendships’ in the house are strained when the group votes to accept another African-American student named Darrell (J. Alex Brinson). Unlike the popular Floyd, Darrell has a criminal record and is sneeringly described as being “fresh out of the ghetto.”

Just as we think Conger is going to explore racial equality and the burgeoning civil rights movement, the story instead focuses on a hazing incident at the house. A few potentially interesting topics are introduced (a visit by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Tina’s newfound feminism, for example) but Conger doesn’t fully develop either. Instead, the plot revolves around the whereabouts of Darrell, who disappears after the embarrassing hazing incident. While there’s a climactic final twist, the conclusion is simplistic and poorly orchestrated.

Conger’s first play isn’t a complete disaster. While many of characters are stereotypical or sketchily defined, the playwright is moderately successful in showcasing the difficulties of implementing social change even in a decade known for transformation.

However, in an era of plays where actors routinely play multiple characters, The Eclectic Society is oddly overpopulated. Half of the play’s characters are uninteresting and unnecessary and at two and a half hours, the play is in dire need of editing. ■

Through March 7. $10-$60. Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St. 215.574.3550. walnustreettheatre.org

FOOTLIGHTS

Tanya Barfield covers disturbing and too-familiar ground in her drama Blue Door, which is currently receiving an uneven production at the Arden Theatre Company. A two-actor work about the ingredients of identity, focuses on an African-American college professor named Lewis (Johnnie Hobbs).

“I don’t know who or why I am,” cries the anguished Lewis, who has recently separated from his wife. At least some of the answers to his identity crisis are provided by his ancestors (all of whom are played by Kes Khemnu), who appear onstage to recall moments in the family’s history.

Like many African-Americans, Lewis’ history is filled with the miseries of slavery and decades of discrimination. A highly animated actor, Khemnu’s flamboyant style served him well as the gregarious Boy Willy in the Arden’s staging of The Piano Lesson. However, in Blue Door he’s too vivacious and his showy performance often draws more attention to the actor than the plight of the characters.

Conversely, Hobbs is sensational as Lewis. One of the area’s most respected performers, his tempered, thoughtful portrayal is one of the best of his career. Barfield’s poetic, highly musical writing is reminiscent of August Wilson, but it lacks originality and in the end Blue Door is never as poignant as it should be. (J.C.R.)

Through March 21. $29-$48. Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. Second St. 215.922.1122. ardentheatre.org

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