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A CurtainUp Review
The Eclectic Society
Yet while Eric Conger’s work is new, it feels like an old play due to the time setting and approach. It’s November 1963 and the Eclectic Society, a campus academic society that’s not so academic and functions like a fraternity, has accepted its second black member for reasons that are not entirely altruistic. An in-house activist fought for it, and some see this as a chance to make the house look good. Some oppose the move, while others don’t really care. This is a time piece that concerns tradition and resistance to change as it treats race issues back when the times they were a changin. However, revisiting the sixties in this way recalls the era, but doesn’t shed new light or bring a different view to the table.
The play’s serious points are mixed with youthful shenanigans. There are a dozen characters and we don’t get to know them all: J. Alex Brinson, a Juilliard grad and an exciting actor, lights up the stage as the new ghetto kid, Darrell. Paul Felder is strong in his antagonist role of Sean. Dan Amboyer does a very creditable "Rock", jock and leader. Carl Clemons-Hopkins plays the group’s established black member. His character, Floyd, distances himself from the race issue, as athletes can. Ed Renninger is notable as Seth, the activist. Brian Cowden (who appeared in the Arden’s The History Boys) and Jamie Branagh, Jeffrey de Picciotto, Noah Mazaika, David Raphaely, James Stover, and Julianna Zinkel complete the cast. All turn in focused, workmanlike performances.
To borrow filmspeak for a moment, Christopher Colucci’s sound design features skillful use of diegetic (played in the story) and nondiegetic (played for atmosphere) recorded music elements. The really good selection of songs hails from the distant time portrayed.
Robert Klingelhoefer contributes the kind of handsome and detailed set one generally expects at the Walnut. Essentially static, it does have one non-literal element that calls surprisingly little attention to itself: Modest projections of color & light that appear at times upstage behind the main set seem intended to evoke the real sixties going on outside. The set design might do more to more to bolster the production, which, while it has its moments of physical dramatic action, relies heavily on too much talk by too many people.
This is Conger’s first original play and it shows, but lets hope it’s not his last. A playwright learns so much from the production of the work. Yes, it’s talky, but there’s a good ensemble cast and a bit of singing and fun and youth packaged into The Eclectic Society. And this is a good opportunity for the Walnut’s audience to take a look at a new work for a change.