The Book Club Play
By Karen Zacarías
Directed by Kevin Christopher Fox
Produced by 16th Street Theater, Berwyn
In Which Running the Perfect Book Club is Serious Business
Karen Zacarías is everywhere. The D.C. based playwright had five world premieres this season, and her play Destiny of Desire will be performed at the Goodman next year. In the meantime, audiences at Berwyn’s 16th Street Theatre have the chance to see the Chicago premiere of her uproarious social comedy, The Book Club Play, in which all the absurdities of self-conscious book-lovers (and those who pose as book-lovers) are satirized, the redeeming power of art is explored, and goofball caricatures develop hearts. The concept has obvious appeal for the theatre-going audience, which tends to be the kind of people who join book-clubs, and Kevin Fox’s smart, hilarious production was extended due to high ticket sales before it even opened.
Ana (Ann Filmer), the book club leader, introduces herself through direct-address as a person who feels greatly responsible for improving the lives of others. She does so with firm, condescending guidance, and nobody has benefitted from her micro-managing more than her dumber and less literate husband, Rob (Brad Harbaugh). The reason for her direct address is that she has volunteered for her book club meetings to be recorded by Danish documentarian Lars Knutsen, whose name carries great prestige. Hopefully, her book club (which she points out predates Oprah’s) will lead to more people throughout the nation resolving to become better versions of themselves, meaning, more like her.
At the first meeting we see, the members are discussing Moby Dick, which was chosen by Ana and Rob’s best friend, Will (Gary Alexander). Matching Ana in snootiness, Will is believed by her and Rob to be the tragic third wheel in their love-triangle, the object of his affections being Ana, of course. New member Lily (Jennifer Glasse), who is Ana’s subordinate at their newspaper, inadvertently offends Will by picking up on his obvious homosexuality. But since she’s the only black member, the others often say awkward things to her, too. The fifth member of the group is Jen (Hannah Gomez), a paralegal with a scandalous past, and the poorest member of the club. But unlike Rob, she actually does read the books, and her enlightenment was Will’s project, not Ana’s. Perhaps it’s the influence of the camera, but the meeting is much tenser and less formal than Ana hoped.
The next meeting, for which Jen choose Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, goes even worse. Rob actually read this book, and is deeply disturbed by how much of his marriage he recognizes in it. As romantic tensions, occupational resentments, and plain old dislike flares among the members, Ana realizes that their chosen authors are noticeably lacking in diversity, and asks Lily to pick something for next time that will shake things up. Lily picks Twilight. For that meeting, Jen challenges Ana and Will’s power by inviting a new person, the literary professor Alex (Jesse Dornan), who sees value in keeping abreast of pop culture since his fiancé dumped him for not being Edward Cullen. This does not go over well with the leaders of the club, but Alex is not so easily cowed by them, or by Lars Knutsen’s all-seeing camera.
This is, obviously, a piece which requires an excellent ensemble of actors. The Book Club Play has gone through many revisions since its first professional staging in 2008, and certain names are always changed to fit the location of each performance (in this version, Ana and Lily work for The Daily Herald). A potential pitfall is that the characters may come off too broad, but in this production, director Kevin Fox guides them along a journey on which they develop more depth as they explore literature from different angles, or at least, we come to know them better. For example, Brad Harbaugh’s Rob and Hannah Gomez’s Jen start as cheerful, but hapless, schlubs, with Jen a little more anxious, and Rob less aware of his unhappiness. Jennifer Glasse’s Lily is smarter, but uncomfortable with the elitism she feels pressured to adopt because of that—she does not want to become another Ana. As the most realistic characters, they inspire the most sympathy and provide people who are less the critical theory-type with somebody to root for, while still displaying plenty of easily recognizable foibles.
The half of the club with a greater affinity for intellectual discussion all have type-A personalities, which allows for both more aggressive comedy and impassioned discussion of the merits of different types of literature. Jesse Dornan’s Alex is a strange, somewhat unsettling presence, and we clearly feel the group dynamic shift with his entrance. Gary Alexander’s Will and Ann Filmer’s Ana are the targets of most of the play’s satire, and at times seem almost too smug to be believed, but the actors are so funny, each of their moments are treasures. Most of the actors also play a minor character who delivers a brief monologue to cover for the rest of the cast’s costume changes between scenes, and these moments, too, combine humor with occasional unexpected insight into the impact a book can have on a reader. Besides the inter-personal drama, the question at the core of the play is whether pop-culture should be regarded as a guilty pleasure at best, or whether it can be embraced whole-heartedly by people whose tastes also include the classics. The Book Club Play itself is a people-pleasing comedy which never gets too heavy or challenging. However, it is done so well, that, like one of the books under discussion, it may be the right thing at the right time to be a greatly rewarding experience.
Reviewed April 14, 2016
For more information, see The Book Club Play’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at The 16th Street Theater, 6420 16th St, Berwyn.