by Karen Zacarias
Directed by Nick Olcott
Produced by Round House Theater
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
There really were book clubs before Oprah’s. Really. The ties that bind through reading and sharing run deep, and, as can be seen in the debuting Book Club Play currently playing at Round House Theatre,woe to the creature who upsets the delicate dynamics.
Relationships come and go, but BOOK CLUB will always be there. In the case of an ultra queen bee, Ana, played to the hilt by Lise Bruneau, a book club can take on such a life of its own that it is the ultimate life experience. Ana is so conniving and controlling that she’d rather bite off her own foot than permit an “unvetted” newbie to join the book club. As the characters explain, the Book Club is the ultimate safe harbor, the steady and secure tried and true spot to clear your mind by delving into the words, expressions and worlds of the masters — writers. That’s the fun premise that Karen Zacarias’ new script delivers–mostly.
The glitch for me was the entire set-up that the play is a documentary with the characters looking into the audience as if speaking directly to a camcorder or camera. Ana explains that graduate students are trying to capture the essence of the dynamics of the book club. The characters put on their best behaviors and recite who they are and what reading and books mean to them. It’s an interesting premise that allows a great deal of expository information about the characters to be delivered, but that can be problematic, too, because of the rather stiff and static nature of the delivery.
Still, the arrangement gets the job done. Besides, without it, we’d have no Sarah Marshall who cuts up with enough screwball, fast-changing, perfectly pitched transformational roles to flip your bookmark. Costume designer Rosemary Pardee had a field day with this one. One of the most versatile actresses in town, Marshall, as “interviewee” offers her book commentary as a blue collar worker in one scene, a free-thinking Wal-Mart executive in another, a glossy simmering in black NY agent, even a latté-loving, free-texting, I-pod tripping college student before she suits up as a free-falling Grandma preparing for her bucket-list jump. Her famous (last?) words are – get out there and live your life instead of just read about it.
Back to the story line– Ana rules the book club roost with an iron fist in a frosted velvet-cake glove. Her phony smile is so pasted on that it hardly masks the turmoil underneath that bubbles up when someone has the nerve to take her on. Certainly her husband Rob wouldn’t grow a pair and take a stand – hell, he can’t even squeeze in his book selection for consideration. Not that anyone could seriously consider Tarzan, when they’re at the War and Peace level. Still, Ana’s flagrant disregard for his feelings and full scale dismissing him is almost painful to watch. Plus, remember it’s all captured on film.
The other characters rounding out the Book Club ensemble seem to be rather stock caricatures at first, but the twists in Zacarias’ script, sure direction by Nick Olcott, and their own individual journeys with the various book selections help to round them out. For example, Jen, played endearingly by Connan Morrissey initially comes across as a mousey yes-girl in the early segments but brightens up and takes charge in the second act when Ana is plucked from her ruling post – at least for a hot minute. Their steady and true friend Will, played by Sasha Olinick brings a Bassett hound dog loyalty to the group-no matter how much unrequited love is heaped on him, he’ll always come back for more.
Erika Rose relays a remarkably grounded reality with her characters. Her Lily, though the token young and “diverse” rep, is grounded, down to earth, and fun to watch while discovering her own sense of self, such as her own morbid fascination with the uncomfortable “justifiably awkward” moments in the group. Matthew Detmer plays the wild card in the bunch. His eclectic Alex is a fish out of water, rumpled plaid and print wearing Gump, socially inept but with intellectual prowess. Ana hates him while the others could at least give him the time of day. It’s his presence that serves as the catalyst that spins the club out of control.
The script gets across the sincere and genuine affection that book clubers have in gathering and sharing their ideas about books— Did they like what they read? What worked, what didn’t and why? At the same time, when Ana goes to the extreme to maintain control, the center of the story gets muddled and goes into a freefall. Is she sick or is she faking it to get sympathy and maintain control? If she’s faking it, how can she maintain a level of interest in the main character without being dismissed as a shallow sham? Questions like these brew underneath the roller coaster ride of laughter that the clever script provides. Zacarias certainly has a way with words and has sure-fire success venting about the self loathing of comparative lit majors, and Ana’s explanations that she is “humiliating and belittling Jen in order to help her.” The script is a goldmine of such zingers. How they all fit together to propel the story, though, still needs to be worked out.
Furthermore, an awful lot of energy is spent setting up the documentary recording premise that just falls apart by the end with no final film project in sight, which makes you wonder, why go through all the trouble setting up the premise in the first place. The sophisticated techno-video projections, designed by JJ Kaczynski, create elaborate layout messages on the back wall that serves as a screen. No expense was spared in creating the truly remarkable images representing tiers of sturdy lined books, to scrolling credits, to animated depictions of book titles, character identification, chronological time. After awhile, though, some of it becomes so overwhelming that the visual gadgetry seemed as important as the play, and nothing should trump that.
At its essence, The Book Club Play looks at the ecology of a group of people and asks, “What is it about the act of reading and talking about literature that is so important?” The play answers its own question by showing the fundamental and marvelous strength of human interaction. As a work in progress, it’s a decent start and is at least on the right page.
Running Time: 2:20 with intermission
When: Thru March 2nd. Wednesday at 7:30pm; Thurs- Saturday at 8pm; Saturday & Sunday matinees at 3pm.
Where: Round House Theatre. 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD
Call: consult the website.