The Book Club Play
Also see Gil's review of The Pirate Queen
High strung and well-read journalist Ana (Maren Maclean) hosts a bi-weekly book club in her house. Members include her friend, the awkward, scatter-brained paralegal Jen (Angelica Howland); Ana's lazy husband Rob (Joe Kremer), who never reads the books and basically just shows up for the food; and her former boyfriend and Rob's college roommate, the intellectual museum curator Will (Tyler Eglen), who Ana believes is still in love with her. The newest member of the group is Lily (Alexis Green), a younger African-American co-worker of Ana's, who often half-jokingly wonders if she has only been invited to provide some diversity for the otherwise all-white group.
Usually reading only classic, stuffy novels like "Moby Dick," the members of the club have now all agreed to become the subjects of a documentary by the well-known Danish filmmaker Lars Knudsen. The book club meetings will be filmed with a camera hanging high over the living room, which is remotely operated by Knudsen. At first feeling self-conscious, uncomfortable and exposed, the members try to portray the best image of themselves. But they quickly forget they are always under the watchful eye of the camera and secrets are soon reveled and truths told. When Jen mistakenly invites Alex (Ian Christiansen), a professor of comparative literature whose fiancée abandoned him because he hadn't read any of the "Twilight" books, to attend the club after running into him in her apartment building's laundry room, there is more tension. Alex, who wasn't fully vetted by the ever-controlling Ana before joining and is constantly at odds with her, steers the group into a new direction suggesting they read contemporary, popular books like "The Da Vinci Code," which undermines Ana's control and puts the future of the book club in jeopardy.
Zacarías has crafted a play with the interesting conceit of highly intellectual characters who jump at the idea to be featured in a "Big Brother" type documentary while at the same time bemoaning popular culture that includes books like "Fifty Shades of Grey" and the type of reality TV show that one assumes Knudsen's documentary would resemble. Interspersed throughout the show are interviews with various other characters that would appear in the "documentary," from a Walmart book stocker, to a Secret Service agent and a retired librarian. These conversations about the role that books play in these people's lives add a nice dimension to the play and also serve as successful scene changes.
Director Matthew Wiener has cast a strong ensemble, featuring several actors who have appeared across the Valley in numerous productions this season. Wiener manages to instill a nice sense of reality in the piece, never letting the comical moments turn into caricature. With a less talented cast, and less surefooted direction, the jokes could come across as more sitcom-like and the dramatic points less fascinating. Fortunately, Wiener succeeds in perfectly balancing the humorous and dramatic parts so they both come across realistically while also getting his actors to make their characters funny, engaging and convincing, even while portraying their dysfunctional aspects.
Maren Maclean's take on Ana is just about perfect. Portraying the judgmental, culture snob and dictator who believes that "popularity is not culture," Maclean has no problem showing this forceful, territorial woman, though her emotional meltdown in the second act is just slightly forced, especially after the excellent work she has done to show us how strong and driven Ana is. Angelica Howland easily assays Jen's neurotic side but is charming and touching in her revelation that the book club saved her life after a scandal in her past left her jobless and without hope. Howland delivers a lovely multi-layered performance that allows us to see the joy that she gets from the club, reading and the friendships she has formed. Joe Kremer makes Rob the simple, less "cultured" man and former jock. He also gets some of the best jokes in the play, which he delivers with glee, yet we also get a glimpse into Rob's softer side when his plans for married life don't quite match up with Ana's. Kremer and Howland are two of the most proficient working actors in the Phoenix area and have performed several other plays this season, including one they were both in, Stray Cat Theatre's All New People. It is always a pleasant experience watching them perform.
Alexis Green makes Lily a hip, likeable person and it is easy to see how she is quickly accepted into the club. Green excels with her coy, well-timed delivery of Zacarías' lines for Lily when she jokingly calls out the various members of the group on what could be perceived as racially prejudiced statements. Tyler Eglen, following a nice turn in Actors Theatre's last show, Good People, instills a genuine sense of joy in Will, both before and after a revelation in the second act. He portrays Will as a well-read, intellectual and well-dressed man who believes that reading brings out "our better selves." Ian Christiansen, who scored just a few weeks back with his rendition of "On the Street Where You Live" in the concert of My Fair Lady at the Phoenix Symphony, adds dimensionality to Alex. The way he challenges the group in the argument of the validity of discounting something as not having any merit just because it's popular is nicely done. He also gets the best line in the play, when the group starts to spiral out of control and the members are basically at each other's throats: "book club is like Lord of the Flies, with wine and dip."
Design elements are fairly basic but functional, though Jeff Thomson's set design leaves a bit to be desired. With black draped backdrops, two couches, a table and a few potted plants, the set looks more like a waiting room in a high-end office building than a living room in a high-end house. The simple addition of the large photo screens of an expensive living room that Thomson used for Actors Theatre's last production of Good People would have been an easy way to portray the setting of Ana and Rob's home.
From "The Age of Innocence" to "The Da Vinci Code," books come in different styles and can mean different things to different people. With realistic dialogue, full of interesting characters and situations, and engaging conversation of literary works, The Book Club Play is a fun contemporary look at modern society and the cultural effect that reality TV has on even the most cultured individuals. But it is also a loving testimony to the value of reading and a smart look at "if something means so much to so many people, doesn't that mean that there is something meaningful there?" The Actors Theatre production has an energetic, hardworking cast and confident direction that gets you thinking about just what justifies "art."
The same cast and creative team will be opening another play next week, Sandy Rustin's The Cottage, and the two plays will be performed in repertory throughout the summer.
The Actors Theatre production of The Book Club Play runs through August 17th, 2014, at the Black Theatre Troupe/Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, at 1333 East Washington Street in downtown Phoenix. Tickets can be ordered at actorstheatrephx.org or by calling (602) 888-0368.
Director: Matthew Wiener