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Washington DC by Susan Berlin

The Book Club Play

The Book Club Play
Eric Messner, Kate Eastwood Norris, Tom Story, Ashlie Atkinson and Rachael Holmes
Through its American Voices New Play Institute, Washington's Arena Stage provides support to playwrights during three-year residencies. Judging from the sparkling production of the first work to receive a mainstage production through this project—The Book Club Play by Karen Zacarķas—the effort is off to a notable start.

The play is not completely new: an earlier version premiered in 2008 at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland. However, Zacarķas kept polishing and refining her script, and where the original play seemed shallow and clever for its own sake, the current one both runs more smoothly and comes across as more truthful. It also earns its laughs, thanks to Molly Smith's fluid direction and a skilled cast.

Ana (Kate Eastwood Norris) is the driving force behind the book club: a newspaper columnist, content in her marriage to laid-back Rob (Eric M. Messner), and arbiter of what the club will read. The other members are fastidious Will (Tom Story), once Ana's beau and Rob's college roommate; Jen (Ashlie Atkinson), dealing with her unrealistic expectations for life and romance; and Lily (Rachael Holmes), younger, African-American, and selected to bring a different perspective to the group. When Jen sees her neighbor Alex (Fred Arsenault) reading the club's current assignment, she invites him to the next meeting—and Ana's tight control begins to collapse.

Rob has no patience for wordy "classic" novels until he reads one that provokes a need to re-evaluate his own life. Then, to Ana's horror, the newer club members suggest moving beyond literary fiction to discuss bestselling phenomena such as "Twilight" and "The Da Vinci Code." Technology also becomes an issue: how does using electronic reading devices, or even smart phones, compare with the experience of holding a printed book and turning pages?

Adding another layer of tension is the fact that the book club is meeting under the unblinking eye of a camera. An esteemed (unseen) documentary filmmaker has decided to explore the social impact of book clubs by recording the members' conversations, confrontations, and occasional emotional meltdowns. (The actors also appear as other interviewees describing their relationship with the written word, ranging from a man who found that a children's book helped him survive a life-threatening injury to a prison inmate running a lucrative black market.)

Smith has created an ensemble of people whose eccentricities never get in the way of their realness. Ana's judgmental side and Will's diffidence are genuine; if they're exaggerated, that may come from the added intensity of them constantly having a camera in their faces.

Arena Stage
The Book Club Play
October 7th - November 6th
By Karen Zacarķas
Ana, Jaded Literary Agent: Kate Eastwood Norris
Rob, Shark Bite Survivor: Eric M. Messner
Will, Former Secret Service Agent: Tom Story
Jen, Candy: Ashlie Atkinson
Lily, Octogenarian Librarian Sky Diver: Rachael Holmes
Alex, Wal-Mart Guy: Fred Arsenault
Directed by Molly Smith
Kogod Cradle, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, Sixth and Maine avenues SW
Washington, DC
Ticket Information: 202-488-3300 or www.arenastage.org


Photo: Stan Barouh



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