Regional Reviews: New Jersey
The Beacon Hill Book Club
Also see Bob's review of Lucky Stiff
The setting is the library of the mansion residence of widowed, elderly Boston blue blood Nora Baldwin (Judith Dowd). The unoriginal but workable plot concerns Nora and her two friends, Addy (Gloria Falzer) and Helen (Carol Lambert), also well born, elderly Boston ladies who are the sole members of a book club whose mission is to read 100 select books about Beacon Hill. It is the fourth anniversary of the founding of the club, and they are only on their eleventh book. It seems that Nora's late husband Philip had compiled the list of books to read with Nora when he had become an invalid. When his failing health made it clear that he would not survive to read any of the books, Philip made a list of rules for The Beacon Hill Book Club, a vehicle for the surviving Nora and her friends to read and discuss them. In the by-laws, Philip provided that if the club members have not read at least fifty of the books by this anniversary, they would be required to recruit a new member in order to revitalize their mission.
Of course, there is more detail in the above summary of the play's set-up than a review should normally convey. However, in this case, it illuminates the unnecessary and destructive overwriting that is afoot here. The set-up is not only needlessly complicated, but it makes no sense on several levels. Additionally, the set-up information (and, as strange as it may seem, there is even more) is partially withheld in order for it to be confusingly revealed in dribs and drabs throughout most of the play's two long acts. There are already too many "revelations" in store for us as the play progresses, and this tactic only adds murkiness to the proceedings.
The only applicant that our Brahmin ladies are able to attract is Rema (Andrea Prendamano), a sexy, young mother who is boorish, foul mouthed, wears too much make-up and is provocatively and vulgarly dressed. Of course, by this time even a neophyte theatergoer will have accurately anticipated that Rema is better read and more intellectually astute in her understanding of life and literature than the entire existing membership of The Beacon Hill Book Club, and that the lives of our three old biddies will be transformed by her.
Also present is newly hired male housekeeper George (Bill Joachim) who is more of a Boston Brahminphile than his employer. The several subplots include one revolving around a more popular book club led by a social rival of Nora. There is also a great deal of complicated plotting centered on Rema which is never clearly explained. Additionally, Rema is written more vulgarly than necessary. It is appropriate for Nora to wince at her language, it is not so for the audience to do so. The play goes on and on with an excessive number of scenes after it could have and should have been wrapped up. Yet, at the end, Rema is not present and her motives and situation remain cloudy.
So what is it about The Beacon Hill Book Club that has commercial potential? Well, Susanna Salk has written three dignified roles which can provide excellent showcases for actresses of a certain age, and a showy one for a younger actress in the role of Rema. A fourth role for a mature actress could be added as, with just a few minor alterations, George could become Georgette. The changes would include the elimination of the homosexual innuendo aimed at George by Rema which should be eliminated in any event as it makes Rema less attractive.
In any event, Salk provides much in the way of pleasant amusing dialogue for each of them. Cast with well known actresses, this could be a popular play for an older, traditional theatre audience with particular appeal to women. However, a good deal of tightening, clarification of character and simplification of situation would have to be accomplished first.
Judith Dowd quietly conveys the unearned smug sense of superiority that defines Judith Dowd's Nora. Carol Lambert's acerbic Helen scores with some of Salk's sharper lines. Addy's personality is not clearly defined in the script, giving Gloria Falzer little to work with. Although I would have preferred a more subtle interpretation of Rema, Andrea Prendamano fully inhabits the role with a great deal of gusto. Bill Joachim is a fine George.
Director Lenny Bart has directed smoothly in keeping with Salk's low-key writing, although whether there is actually a living Mrs. Thatcher (Nora's dog) present is sometimes in doubt. Among the design elements, Westie Grosh's costumes are especially fine.
The Beacon Hill Book Club continues performances (Thurs. Sat. 8 p.m. / Sun. 3 p.m.) through April 9, 2006 at the 12 Miles West Center for the Arts, 562 Bloomfield Ave., Bloomfield, NJ 07003. Box office: 973-259-9187; online: www.12MilesWest.org/
The Beacon Hill Book Club by Susanna Salk;
directed by Lenny Bart