July 11, 2008 performance reviewed by Frances Benn Hall.
If the bland title of playwright Karen Zacarias’ The Book Club Play now gracing the Berkshire Theatre Festival stage leads one to expect a predictable comedy concerning the motley types who inhabit the ubiquitous book clubs that seem to exist everywhere, think again.
While the play begins innocently enough with the members of this club being filmed for a documentary concerning books—why they read or how their first encounter with Pat the Bunny or Tarzan or Heathcliff changed their lives, that is deceptive at best.
Very quickly the little comedy becomes more as the five club members (soon to be come a sixth over whom acceptance rules fuel the plot) seem to forget they are on camera and their real feelings about the others, about themselves, and especially about the angst within them become entangled in confrontations and conflict.
All this is presented in rapid-fire, hysterical dialog with smashing comic thrusts that keeps the audience a-roar.
But there is more. This play keeps us aware of technology and film for the great pale multilevel set (that includes the living room where the club meets and indulgences in the food of the evening, a big item to some who bring and some who devour) but is also at times filming space of the events, planned and unplanned that get disastrously out of hand.
We in the audience experience this technology as great titles, author names, etc. are projected on the soaring white walls, pulling us into the documentary itself. It is an ambitious undertaking and works most of the time, although time itself gets a bit jangled even though projected titles of dates help keep one on track.
Thus the multipex interweaving of real life, documentary life and projections—to say nothing about the one-shot laugh lines that pepper the script, make this an ambitious play involving a great deal more than the title can suggest.
… an astonishing, hilarious, and at times moving play, one difficult to describe but rewarding to see.
And there is one other added element—a 7th character, The Expert/Pundit. This role actually becomes half a dozen more roles as she/he (for so skillfully does Sarah Marshall inhabit this role that it is hard to believe one woman is all the commentators) suddenly breaks into what plot there is, to appear now down right, legless, in a wheel chair or up center ready to leap into space. It is a virtuoso role. Absolutely brilliant.
Brilliant too are the very individual inhabitants of the book club. Leading the pack is the leader of the club Ana (Keira Naughton) who not only decrees, brings intimidating refreshments, vetoes new members, but also would be a writer herself and keeps a disastrous diary. Her marvelous hysteria, provoked by her losing authority over the group at a trying moment brings on a tirade (death wish) that sets the humorous plot whirling with angst. And brings out the most dramatic acting and skills of the other five group members.
The pivotal moment is triggered when Jen (Anne Louise Zachry) the youngest member of the club, whose journalistic hopes are still confined to writing obit columns, brings to a monthly meeting Alex (Bhavesh Patel) whom she has encountered in her apartment building’s laundry room reading War and Peace.
Patel is brilliantly funny adding a colorful and dynamic twist to any scene he inhabits. (He really was reading the book although his garb and antics would not suggest it.) But it is his suggested inclusion in the group that sends Ana into her tail-spin that involves all.
Including her husband Rob (C. J. Wilson) whose greatest interest in the club seems to be the refreshments and fond memories of Tarzan. Although even his laid back attitude to Ana and literature can be animated beyond devouring twinkies.
Lily, Cherise Boothe, remembered for a fine performance in Blues for an Alabama Sky, remains calm in the fray and handles some of the funniest one-liners in the play with aplomb. She can express concern without hysteria and probably not only read but understood the books on the club list.
Tom Story, BTF veteran and creator of very different roles here plays Will, the gay-man-out, in the group. Full of angst and oh so sensitive. His winter garb seems not only his attempts at hiding from the inclement weather but from the reality of a situation itself.
These six club members (or in Patel’s case, possible member) and the ingenious Pundit whose presence adds the seeming half a dozen more to the cast, make this an astonishing, hilarious, and at times moving play, one difficult to describe but rewarding to see.
Director Nick Olcott has somehow held together all the interwoven mechanics of the convoluted script and created an atmosphere in which the seven actors could each have a chance to play their souls out.
The play has been developing for a couple of years and still could be clearer at times. But it is an exhilarating evening in theatre and the stage is awash with first-rate talent.
And although the characters and technical gimmicks overshadow Ahab and Tolstoy and even that Bunny that got patted, ultimately the play is about books – words – communication and the obscuring and sharing of it. A fairly hefty topic for a summer comedy.
And yet it whirls along as zanily as our world of 2008 seems to be whirling.