Monday, September 30, 2019

The Book Club Play By Karen Zacarias


The Book Club Play
By Karen Zacarias
Through October 13

Review by Lawrence Kessenich

If you like your humor broad and a little silly, this production of The Book Club Play at Boston Playwrights Theatre will please you. I doubt you’ll be in danger of falling out of your seat with laughter, but you’ll get some good chuckles.

The setting is a middle class living room (beautifully designed by Jeffrey Petersen) where the eponymous book group of 30-somethings has been meeting for five years. The group includes newspaper columnist Ana, who claims to have founded the group; her college friend (and brief beau at the time) Will, a history museum curator who continually reminds Ana that the book group was his idea; Ana’s husband and Will’s former college roommate Rob, a reluctant member of the group who rarely reads the books (he says he’s in it for the food), Ana’s somewhat forlorn single friend Jennifer; and the newest member of the group, Ana’s protégé at the newspaper, Lily.

Adding interest—and making everyone totally self-conscious—is the fact that everything that happens in the groups for a couple months is being filmed by an unmanned camera and the footage will be used by an internationally famous filmmaker for a documentary about book groups. Many times in the play, members of the group address the camera directly, usually asking the filmmaker to cut the part that has just been recorded.

This is a very literary book club—when the play opens, they’re discussing Moby Dick—but a somewhat clumsy exchange with Lily, who is black, reveals that the group has only read white authors. They ask Lily to pick something intense and out of their wheelhouse, clearly hoping it will be a classic author of color, but Lily picks the popular novel Twilight, written by a white woman. Ana and Will are aghast, but the others are willing to give it a try, so they decide to read the book.

Much of the humor for the middle part of the play grows out of the discrepancy between Ana and Will’s classical tastes and everyone else’s appreciation of Twilight and then The Da Vinci Code, which is introduced by a man Jennifer springs on the group. The man, Alex, is a professor of comparative literature, but, having recently been dumped by his girlfriend because she read Twilight, he has come to realize that he knows nothing about popular literature and ought to be learning about it.

There is a good deal of back and forth between the opposing groups about the value of popular literature, and though some of it is interesting, and even insightful, it isn’t terribly dramatic and goes on a bit too lolng. What provides some drama is Rob’s dissatisfaction with his marriage to Ana, Will’s coming to grips with his sexuality, and Ana’s dealing with her slipping control over the group. It would be spoiling things to describe what happens in these areas, but suffice it to say that there are a number of revelations that cause confusion and consternation in the group.

Interspersed with the book club scenes are brief monologues by a single actor, Brooks Reeves, who appears upstage, with the set dark behind him, as an amazing variety of characters, including: a female literary agent, who talks about how many books there are and how few get published and read; a male Secret Service agent, who talks about his own book group and how they enforce attendance; “Sam” from Walmart, who talks about how many books the company sells and how intra-Walmart book clubs keep its underpaid employees happy; and an elderly, retired librarian, about to skydive, who warns readers to live life for real, not just through books. While these interludes are sometimes fun, they really don’t relate to the rest of play in any direct way—except at the very end, when the Secret Service agent makes a brief appearance with the rest of the characters.

Besides Reeves, because of the variety of his characters, none of the actors really stands out. They are good performers, but I never really believed in them as real human beings, because the director, Shana Gozansky, has them play their roles on a kind of middle ground, neither realistically nor over-the-top (except for brief moments). If they’d been over-the-top most of the time, the farcical quality would have carried the humor better. But I think it would have been even more effective if they’d been asked to play their characters as naturally as possible, which would have set off the absurdity of what goes on among them. So, this reviewer was left feeling lukewarm about the play, caught on his own middle ground between liking and not liking the play. Depending on your tastes, you might go either way.  

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