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Theater Review: The Book Club Play

Karen Zacarias’s zany comedy gets a rewrite at Arena Stage, but still feels unfinished.

Eric Messner as Rob, Kate Eastwood Norris as Ana, and Tom Story as Will in Arena Stage’s production of The Book Club Play. Photograph by Stan Barouh

☆☆ 1/2 stars out of four

There’s much discussion in The Book Club Play, currently playing at Arena Stage, as to what denotes the difference between entertainment and culture. Is Twilight literature if 100 million people say it is? Can Moby Dick ever be more than a 600-page slog? It’s one of the most thoughtful aspects of a play that could gain a lot from taking itself more seriously. Author Karen Zacarias, a resident playwright at Arena, is a compelling local talent, and she has an undeniable gift for comedy. But at times in this production, she seems to almost be aiming for easy laughs rather than something more substantial.

The Book Club Play first debuted at Round House Theatre in 2008 to mixed reviews. The original premise, in which a reading group is being filmed for a documentary by a group of graduate students, has been tweaked: The club is now under the ominous and ever-silent eye of a remote camera controlled by Danish documentarian Lars Knudsen (this mostly seems to be so the characters can have fun saying “Knudsen” over and over again in their best Lars von Trier impression). It’s an awkward plot motif, and it isn’t helped by the “documentary” parts of the play, which feature amateurish screened clips of cast members in ridiculously fake situations expounding on the worth of books.

The central focus of the play is much stronger. Ana (Kate Eastwood Norris), a control freak journalist and lover of literature, hosts a regular book club in her house, attended by her husband, Rob (Eric Messner), her friend Jen (Ashlie Atkinson), and her former boyfriend, Will (Tom Story). The purpose of the club seems to be so Ana can lord it over Rob, who never reads the book, Jen, who’s a personal and professional failure, and Will, who Ana believes still holds a torch for her. An ego monster in Tory Burch flats, she alternately bullies and cajoles the group into signing releases so the invisible Knudsen can capture their group in all its dysfunctional glory.

Anyone who’s ever participated in a book club will recognize and enjoy the following key elements: wine, intellectual snobbery, and an irrational hostility to outsiders. Ana’s “perfect” book club is disturbed by the arrival of two newcomers—Lily (Rachael Holmes), a younger, less neurotic co-worker of Ana’s, and Alex (Fred Arsenault), a professor of comparative literature whose fiancée abandoned him because he didn’t know who Edward Cullen was. As the group discusses works from The Age of Innocence to The Da Vinci Code, Ana’s cosy perch as queen of her own tiny universe is undermined, resulting in squawking fits, flouncing, and a particularly heightened incident involving a vase of flowers. Too big for comedy and too small for farce, the jokes come thick and fast, but they rarely feel natural—the artificiality each character claims to feel in front of the camera comes across slightly too well.

With Molly Smith directing and an outstanding cast, this deserves to be a much stronger play. Eastwood Norris is terrific as the gilded, snotty Ana, but her final meltdown feels half-hearted. Arsenault is underused as the thoughtful, charismatic academic, and Holmes, who was beyond powerful in Lynn Nottage’s Ruined earlier this year, never feels convincing in her role as Lily. Zacarias provides fascinating nuggets of insight into the awkward topic of race in her approach to the play’s sole black character, and these underline again how strong a writer she is. But The Book Club Play’s haphazard, scattered feel doesn’t do it justice. It’s too thoughtful to make such ridiculous jokes with conviction, and too comedic to follow through on its potential.

Zacarias has something here, and it’s easy to see why she persevered with a re-write. Her characters are funny and engaging, and the age-old question of what defines art is great fodder for a play. The documentary aspect of the plot is obviously supposed to be a prism through which foibles are exposed and tension added, but it feels forced in what’s otherwise a smart look at modern life and the pursuit of literature.

The Book Club Play is at Arena Stage through November 6. Tickets ($40 and up) available at Arena Stage’s Web site.