BWW Reviews: Applause for Actors Theatre's THE BOOK CLUB PLAY
No doubt about it. The Book Club Play, written by Karen Zacarias and masterfully directed by Matthew Weiner, is an audience's delight and a tribute to the latter's commitment to socially relevant and provocative theatre. The ensemble is as good as it gets ~ a dream cast of dynamic and energetic actors who give fine definition to their roles. However, if there is a fault, it lies not in the stars but in the playwright whose message about culture and relationships gets diluted in this comedy of manners and cross-cutting themes.
The cast bristles with energy, each player a brilliantly sculpted manifestation of distinct segments of the Myers-Briggs personality grid.
The book club meetings are, as one character describes it, "like Lord of the Flies with wine and dip."
Ana, the book club's organizer, played with manic vitality by Maren Maclean, intends the book club to be a safe haven where the members can be their authentic selves. She's a control freak whose best laid plans and intentions spiral out of control when her own manipulations implode.
Indeed, there are a number of flies in Ana's ointment, the most nattering of which is her husband Rob, the former jock who would rather see the movie version of a book than read it. Joseph Kremer gives an inspired and richly comical performance as Rob, who may be the most authentic, like a gorilla in the midst of literary snobs. He asks two compelling questions: "Why don't we read things that make us happy?" and "Where is my flame of life?" In a sparkling moment of spontaneous combustion that dissipates all too quickly, he encounters the answer. Yet, neither of his queries gets answered ~ one example of where Zacarias misses an opportunity to go deeper and probe the profound and timely questions that are the subtext of this play.
To add fuel to her fire, Ana has invited the lens of documentarian Lars Knudsen to record the activity of this self-proclaimed best of book clubs as a video monument to her cultural superiority. The members are supposed to act naturally and ignore the camera's inescapable eye. Alas, the candid camera alters behavior and mercilessly captures each unplanned moment of self-revelation and vulnerability.
Next, Ana's co-worker Lily (Alexis Green) has invited, sans the necessary vetting and voting, Alex (Ian Christiansen), a professor of comparative literature, to attend the Club ~ an invitation that opens the door to questions about the definition of culture and what it means to be cultured.
Angelica Howland is a remarkable stage presence whose performance infuses Jen with a raw honesty and authenticity that delivers memorable stage moments. Tyler Eglen rounds out the cast as Will, Ana's old boyfriend who has surprises of his own to add to the mix.
There are hilarious moments in this play where dreams, secrets, biases, insecurities, and stereotyping get revealed.
And there are, most importantly, weighty and timely questions to be pondered: What is the difference between culture and entertainment? What does it mean to be truly cultured? What is the rebuttal to Ana's declaration that "There is nothing cultured" about the vampire fantasy Twilight while Alex declares that Twilight's hero "Cullen is this century's Heathcliffe!" New generations of readers may impose upon the text their own interpretation of intention as Lily does when she opines that Moby Dick is an ode to man love. Interpretations of quality and culture evolve or devolve with time with implications to be considered.
It is a play that has the potential to be something more than it is if Zacarias could have achieved focus. Instead, it employs all the devices that would make it a worthy candidate for a made-for-TV reality series.
Despite these shortcomings and a denouement that left me deeply unsatisfied, Actors Theatre has offered a production that should not be missed and that merits reflection and discussion.
Photo credit: John Groseclose L to R: Maren Maclean, Alexis Green, Angelica Howland and Joe Kremer