These days, asking how someone takes their books will yield more answers than asking how they take their coffee. Hardback? Paperback? Nook? Kindle? Barnes and Noble? Amazon? iPad? Google? Walmart? Library? The used book store around the corner that has what you need more often than what you want? The avenues for reading are endless, but no matter how we now take our books, what they give us is the same. The Book Club Play reminds us why we cherish books as much as why we go to the theatre.
Written by gifted Arena Stage resident playwright Karen Zacarías, The Book Club Play is an account of a group of professionals who participate in a bi-weekly book club, which, to the delight of perpetual hostess Ana (Kate Eastwood Norris) has been picked up by a popular film documentarian. The permanent camera placed inside the living room she shares with her husband, Rob, (Eric M. Messner) silently captures the chaos inspired by the gatherings. The book club also includes up-and-coming columnist Lily (Rachael Holmes), charmingly scatter-brained Jen (Ashlie Atkinson), and the stylish and composed Will (Tom Story). Alex, a comparative lit professor played by Fred Arsenault, also sweet talks his way into the group, but not without fierce debate. The book club, after all, is a sacred place.
Though all the cast members delightfully hold up their end of the ensemble bargain, it is Norris who anchors the production. Her neurotic and uptight perfectionist blooms into a heroine worth cheering for. Don’t let her comedic gifts fool you – she’ll tug the heart strings, too.
The piece plays like a mix between a documentary and sitcom (with no need for the requisite laugh track: the house was in a consistent uproar). While some characters are literary purists, (a couple all but declare “death to the ebook”) the production makes smart of use of the technology at hand. The piece is aided by documentary-like intros and outros, filmed in advance and projected (Projection Design) behind the set. Donald Eastman’s set matches with solid, contemporary grace, and fits seamlessly with the media-driven portions of the piece. Linda Cho’s costumes are vivid and human. Thoughtfully modern, they manage to blend and evolve with the piece at the same time (and Holmes’s boots are likely to send you to the store in search of a pair).
Zacarías’s sharp and elastic words are set in expert motion by the playful and always entertaining company. And while the play may begin as a better-than-anything-on-tv-nowadays situation comedy, under Molly Smith’s direction it fleshes out with sweet honesty which holds unwaveringly through its final moments.
The piece has no problem posing questions of taste. Any literature fanatic has asked friends, “What is it about those Twilight books?” The play’s leading topical discussion is a familiar one, a frustrating one, and a question that sits at the heart of creation. What is “art?” and why do we love it? What makes it worthy of love?
There is more joy sprinkled throughout the Book Club Play than there are literary references, in fact, the show is nearly bursting with it. Excitement – about reading, about sharing, about connecting, – filters from the vivid production and into the space. Much like the books we read, the evening is a desperately needed escape from the cynical grind of the world.
The Book Play Club does more than engage the audience: it starts the conversation, asking everyone involved to join in. Upon entering the Mead Center, the conversation has already begun: Patrons are offered name tags on which they’re encouraged to cite their favorite book, and the halls are lined with hard and soft back copies of work from the literary greats. Upon browsing the selection I got the sense that these were carefully chosen, and couldn’t help but consider the impact these books have had on their donors.
Leaving the Mead Theater, an unmistakable energy was expelling from the lips and minds of the audience members. Many seemed anxious to share their thoughts, to participate in the production’s various projects, or to get home and revisit their favorite book. For a piece centered around the often personal and solitary act of reading, The Book Club Play is a communal treat, a testament not only to the joys of books, but of each other.
The Book Club Play
by Karen Zacarías
directed by Molly Smith
produced by Arena Stage
Reviewed by Sarah Ameigh
Running Time: 2 hours with a fifteen minute intermission
Patrick Folliard . WashingtonBlade
- Rebecca Ritzel . Washington City Paper
- Jenn Larsen . WeLoveDC
- Elliot Janes and Jennifer Perry . MDTheatreGuide
- Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
Barbara Mackay . Washington Examiner
Peter Marks . Washington Post
Ali Goldstein . BrightestYoungThings
- Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian