Review: 'Book Club' is chapter-and-verse funny at Center REP

By Karen D'Souza

POSTED:   02/04/2015 10:40:28 AM PST

 

The shtick hits the fan somewhere between the brie and the Beaujolais in "The Book Club Play."

Karen Zacarias' lively comedy of manners toys with the culture wars through the lens of a chatty suburban book club. Pretensions, egos and hostilities truly simmer to a boil when the club agrees to be filmed by a famous Danish documentarian. As one character puts it: "Book club is like Lord of the Flies, with wine and dip."

Cheekily directed by Becca Wolff at Center Rep, "Book Club" is light and bright in its West Coast premiere, an amusing spoof on postmodern society enlivened by tart performances by gifted actors Liam Vincent and Gabriel Marin.

While the play falls into some annoying sitcom style traps, and the reality TV-like plot device never seems necessary, it's hard not to chuckle at the way people interact with books. Some devour them, others simply use them as decor, like throw pillows. Still others employ books as a means of branding their intellectual style.

The rules of this book club are simple. You do not talk about book club. Unless you are talking to the camera, in which case, all bets are off.

Ana (Kathryn Han) is the control freak, the fearless leader of this chardonnay klatch. She's an overachiever who feels stymied at her job as a newspaper columnist so she seeks enlightenment after hours.

Jen (Rebecca Schweitzer) is the lonesome one, a frazzled paralegal perpetually downing her glass of vino. Will (Vincent) is the one with the fab wardrobe and the love of musicals who insists he is not gay. Rob (Marin) is a ball of frustrations who is loathe to read anything more than the TV listings, but has an unexpected revelation about his own life after reading Edith Wharton. Lily is trendy and smart but she's also the club's only black member, which means she can't help being a little concerned about being a token to diversity.

Ana's perfectly-appointed lifestyle (retro chic set design by Michael Locher) begins to fray when Lily suggests the group branch out beyond the classics. Suddenly "Moby Dick" gives way to "Twilight" and the whole high art versus low art dichotomy is under fire.

A newbie to the book club, Alex (Alonso Yabar) a comparative literature professor drunk on the pop culture canon dares to challenge Ana's insistence on masterpieces over mass appeal. Alex argues cogently that "Twilight" is simply "Wuthering Heights" with vampires and that only a snob would ignore the world unfolding right now in favor of some 19th-century narrative ideal.

Zacarias (''Legacy of Light'') never develops the personalities as fully as she should, which undercuts the emotional stakes here. Ana's meltdown feels forced, Will's journey is far too predictable.

She also saddles the play with numerous video asides that don't deepen the play's debate about literature. The ending also feels contrived.

Still, the playwright nails the way a tribe of any kind will do anything to protect itself from the impudence of newcomers and their ideas. She also puts her finger on the power of art to do far more than entertain. "Age of Innocence" leads one character to an existential crisis. "The Da Vinci Code" brings another out of the closet. For all its laugh-track-ish punch lines, the play reminds us that the best art does more than amuse us. It's often as unsettling as it is compelling because it usually forces us to look hard at some part of ourself that we would rather ignore.

"Book Club" doesn't trust that motif enough to let it fully reverberate throughout the plot but it's still a page turner of a theme.

 


Center REP’s West Coast Premiere of “The Book Club Play” Is a Real Page-Turner

By Jan Miller

POSTED:   02/06/2015


Under the crisp leadership of Center Repertory Company’s Artistic Director Michael Butler comes the West Coast Premiere of “The Book Club Play,” directed by Becca Wolff, and currently playing at the Dean Lesher Theater in Walnut Creek, CA. through February 28. This clever script by Karen Zacarias really pops off the page, with plenty of banter, humor and action. 

Millions of people belong to book clubs — or at least know of those who do — and therefore can relate to characters and plot lines that begin in a reality in which we live. Yet in “The Book Club Play” the plot takes twists and turns only to end in places we could not possibly imagine for ourselves.

In “The Book Club Play” this particular book club’s meetings are being recorded for a reality show, and the members, at key moments, tend to forget that the unseen camera is rolling. In fact, we in the audience actually ‘become’ the camera, taking in the action from that vantage point. At the least opportune times the characters inadvertently behave badly in front of the camera — and quickly thereafter begin to beg the invisible filmmaker to cut things they shouldn’t have said…or done. It reminds me a lot of “Candid Camera” catching people behaving badly. The end result is loads of laughter and literature, which collide head on in this comedy about books and the people who love them. 

Ana (Kathryn Han) lives in a letter-perfect world in which she believes she’s in complete control. However, her book collector friend Will (Liam Vincent) repeatedly insists the formation of the club was his idea. Other members of the club include Ana’s adoring husband Rob (Gabriel Marin), who attends these meetings more for the food than the books, and would actually prefer to see the movie than read the book of the same title; Lily (Khalia Davis), Ana’s young co-worker at the newspaper where she works who is new to the community after moving from Akron, Ohio; and Will’s childhood friend Jen (Rebecca Schweitzer), who is still trying to navigate the maze of life and says that belonging to this book club gives her a reason to get out of bed. Add literature professor Alex (Alonso Yabar), a club-crashing newcomer, and the club’s long intertwined group dynamics begin to unravel.

Just as we wonder where this is going, the plot thickens. Rob actually reads a book from cover to cover, with surprising consequences. And a new character turns up at the meetings—lit professor Alex takes this club to places where it has never ventured before: toward popular novels like “The DaVinci Code.” In the end, romances and personal identities are more clearly defined and the audience leaves with a smile on its collective face.

Behind-the-scenes credits are many: The book club meetings are always held in Ana’s sleek home (set design by Michael Locher) and Micah J. Stieglitz’ projections introduce each of the book club’s titles and back up short scenes that introduce the audience to other random book lovers—a Secret Service agent, a Walmart employee, and a skydiving librarian. 

Like the page-turners that are discussed in “The Book Club Play,” this comedy is both cute and entertaining. In other words, put this one on the book shelf marked “Funny Stuff.” 

For tickets or more information please visit CenterREP.org or phone (925) 943-7469.