Despite being an avid reader, I’ve somehow missed out on the whole book club phenomenon. Maybe it’s that whole Groucho Marx "I refuse to join a club that would have me as a member" thing. So when it came time to see Karen Zacarias’ The Book Club Play at Arena Stage, who better to bring along than a friend with intimate knowledge of not one but two book clubs, someone whose involvement was so consuming she once proclaimed she was "breaking up" with book club?
"Is this anything like your book clubs?" I whispered to my friend at intermission.
"No, not really" she laughed with a wicked insider smile, "but it’s funny."
That may neatly sum up the issues with The Book Club Play. It skims the pages, lightly playing with issues like the devolution of the literary canon (is Twilight really the Wuthering Heights of our day?), and the social dynamics of readers with different commitments and backgrounds. But even in its construct, it owes more to reality shows than literature.
It’s a funny reality show though, to be sure, with broadly sketched characters against a cartoon-colored set. It’s even divided into "chapters" announced across the bottom of the stage as the various books from the sacred (Moby Dick) to the profane (The DaVinci Code) are introduced, just like some sitcoms do.
This current version, directed by Arena’s artistic director Molly Smith, is a reworking of Zacarias’ original 2008 play, first produced at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre and the Berkshire Summer Festival. As the resident playwright for the American Voices New Play Institute in 2010, Zacarias had the opportunity to revisit The Book Club Play and add another layer to the plot. The book club members are under the lens of a fictional Danish documentarian, and snippets of his film interrupt the action. They’re also being fictionalized by the book club maven, Ana (Kate Eastwood Norris), for her own book on the book club. It’s clever, and completely self-aware of its own cleverness. Are the characters we see on stage the real people, or are they actors playing the roles in a movie of Ana’s book? Are the documentary shots even real? It’s all very meta.
The ensemble cast is delightfully zany, despite their characters being broad stereotypes (but – is that the point? and – is that point too clever?). Eastwood Norris is that perfect nightmare Type A hostess, ruling her book club with a benevolent iron grip. Eric Messner as her husband Rob has one of the play’s best moments, in the throes of an sadly comic existential crisis brought on by finally completely an assigned book – Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Both are beloved by "is-he-gay-or-isn’t he?" college buddy Will (Tom Story, embracing the humor in the stereotype), and that unrequited messy triangle provides most of the plot’s tension. Rounding out the book club quintet is Rachael Holmes as Lily, stylishly sweet but ready to take over Ana’s newspaper column, and Ashlie Atkinson as perpetually unorganized paralegal Jen.
Into that group comes Alex (played with natural charm by Fred Asenault), the interloper, providing the remainder of the plot’s tension as he deflates the book club’s literary pretentions by enabling their secret desires for potboilers like Twilight. His character is the counterpoint to Ana, and a showdown is inevitable.
There’s no denying that The Book Club Play is funny, sometimes sweetly so, and the battle that ensues between the two camps helps examine stereotypes – and stereotypes sometimes are funny precisely because they are true. But if you’re looking for an in-depth investigation of the power of literature or its relevance in the modern world, just remember – this isn’t War and Peace.
The Book Club Play by Karen Zacarias, at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, through November 6. Arena Stage is located at 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, DC 20024. Closest Metro stop: Waterfront (Green line). For more information call 202-488-3300.