One of the reasons why people presumably join book clubs is for the social experience- the chance to meet other people who may have different interests, but share a love for books. This idea of the book club serving a social purpose beyond a shared reading of books is the foundation for Karen Zacarías’ sometimes funny and sometimes grating The Book Club Play now playing at Arena Stage. The characters in this play, skillfully directed by Arena’s own Artistic Director Molly Smith, share a unique experience in which a renowned documentary director is filming their book club meetings for an upcoming piece on book clubs. This poses both opportunities and challenges for the cultured 30-something book club participants.
The play, admirably performed by a strong ensemble cast of six, centers around six general character types. Ana (Kate Eastwood Norris) is the overachiever, control freak newspaper columnist who consistently reminds the others that she is the founder of the club. Rob (Eric M. Messner), Ana’s husband, is a former jock who participates in the club but rarely, if ever, reads the books that are assigned. Will (Tom Story) is Ana’s effeminate former boyfriend and Rob’s former roommate. Jen (Ashlie Atkinson) is an overworked paralegal with a love for romance novels despite not having a love life of her own Lily (Rachael Holmes), a young hipster with a talent for writing, is new to town and joined the book club at Ana’s encouragement. The last to join the group, Alex (Fred Arsenault), is a comparative literature professor seeking to get over a recent heartbreak. Within each of these characters, it is likely audience members can see a piece of themselves or someone they know. Through the characters’ discussion of the books, the audience quickly sees reading can lead to self-discovery, but also conflict, especially when several people collectively partake in the examination and relate the books to their own lives.
The general concept of the play is a good one. It provides commentary on a contemporary social phenomenon (book clubs) while providing the audience with accessible dialogue, which is witty at times and at other times a bit excessive and “one note.” However, due to the plot device (the filming of several book club meetings over the course of a few months), plot can quickly devolve into a soap opera. However, the strong cast largely does a good job in not crossing the fine line between comedy and camp. This ensures that the story, despite all of the twists and turns, remains somewhat relatable and, for the most part, realistic. Rachael Holmes and Ashlie Atkinson are particularly skilled at bringing a realistic quality to their characters while Kate Eastwood Norris, who possibly has the most difficult character to play with any kind of subtlety, sometimes crosses over that fine line between comedy and camp. Her performance can be cartoonish at times, but she does do a particularly good job in the second act in slowly losing control of her situation when control is something her character clearly values. It’s a powerful moment.
Overall, the production values are quite strong. Donald Eastman’s functional living room set is quite basic, but it provides a homey atmosphere for the book club meetings in Ana’s home. Though the set is suitable for the piece, we do question why some of the projection screens were placed at floor level. Due to the seating arrangements in Arena’s new Kogod Cradle, it’s likely that few members of the audience in the front of the house could see the scene titles displayed on these screens. However, Adam Larsen’s projection design was very effective. We won’t give away the secrets, but the funny videos interspersed within the action give the audience a sense of what the finished documentary about book clubs will look like once filmed. The sound and lighting design by Cricket S. Myers and Nancy Schertler, respectively, serve the piece well without diverting focus from the dialogue and action as does Linda Cho’s modern and urban costume design. Cho’s costuming choices are very character-specific (Lily, for example, wears hip urban clothing, while Ana is in more conservative fashions) and aid in creating necessary distinctions between the character types to move the plot forward.
Overall, Zacarías does a nice job in creating a story that is both accessible and interesting to a modern, urban American audience. Her use of pop culture references (Twilight, Harry Potter, Ipads, and Kindles are just a few examples) may make this piece a bit of a museum piece if presented several decades from now, but the general conceit of the play will likely withstand the passage of time. After all, several decades from now people will still read books (though maybe not in paper format), crave and experience social interaction, learn to deal with people who may or may not be like them, and engage in self-discovery. Arena Stage should be commended for giving this play another chance (a previous incarnation was seen at Round House Theatre in 2008) and for exposing the audience to a local playwright who shows great future promise.
Running Time: 2 hours including a 15 minute intermission.
The Book Club Play plays through November 6, 2011, at Arena Stage Mead Center for American Theatre – 1101 6 St, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 488-3300 or purchase them online.