BWW Reviews: Rochester Audiences Go 'Clubbing' at Geva Theatre
When socialite, columnist and literary enthusiast Ana agrees to have cameras installed in her pristine upper middle-class home to document her weekly book club, she has no idea how it will change her sacred gathering- and her near-perfect life.
That's the baseline plot for Geva Theatre's latest Mainstage production, The Book Club Play, which runs through March 23.
Popular sitcoms like "The Office" and "Parks and Recreation" have been (successfully) experimenting with omniscient cameras and interview-style asides for years, but Karen Zacarías is one of the first modern playwrights to employ the technique on stage in a show that's neither musical or interactive.
Liken it to a contemporary, Americanized version of "The Importance of Being Earnest," or any similar comedy of manners, because this play takes a privileged group of people in an ordinary situation and turns things upside down to make a point.
Put simply, The Book Club Play is just the least bit farcical - and that's what makes it so enjoyable.
It's a play that employs already familiar tactics, adds in an extra 'fishbowl' element by placing audience members onstage, and features a stellar cast with impeccable comedic timing.
In an experimental strategy that keeps his title highly relevant, Director Sean Daniels (Geva Theatre's Director of Artistic Engagement/Artist-at-Large) decided to add audience seats onstage - to the right and left sides of the set design. These audience members are flawlessly incorporated into the show's banter throughout the night, gaining a bit of the spotlight themselves (whether they want it or not).
The cast is minimal. Six actors play the members of The Book Club along with myriad "respected experts" in the literary field who have short soliloquies intended to function as part of the documentary production.
Ana (Jessica Wortham) is precisely the sort of woman who would start a book club to stroke her ego. She's smart, beautiful and already near the top of her social ladder. Wortham portrays a confident (yet completely insecure) character who commands attention with her anal retentive tendencies and self-congratulatory speeches. Ana tells her protégée, Lily (the marvelous, sophisticated-beyond-her-years Brett Robinson) that her husband, Rob (Tom Coiner) and his best friend, Will (John Gregorio), are both in love with her and have been since college. Of course, Ana had to break poor Will's heart and marry Rob.
Coiner and Gregorio have an easy camaraderie and stage presence that captures male stereotypes (the sheepish, less intelligent husband and the sophisticate, single middle-aged man) while providing many of the laugh-out-loud moments in the script.
Rounding out the cast are book club newcomer Alex (Aaron Muñoz), portrayed as the Dead Poets Society-esque professor who shakes up the conversation, and Ana's best friend, Jen (Kristin Mengelkoch), who is funny enough for Saturday Night Live and awkward enough for HBO's Girls.
Chances are high that most of the audience members have been part of a book club - inspired either by a Christmas-gifted device equipped with e-reader ability or a socially-conscious celebrity's endorsement of the activity. Between the familiarity of the actors and the material of the script, The Book Club Play is an audience favorite that will send patrons out of the theater laughing.
(Especially if they stay for the bonus scene at the end.)
Photo by Chris Holden.