When playwright Karen Zacarias worked in the retail book industry in the late ’90s, she noticed sales went through the roof every time Oprah picked a title for her TV book club. Zacarias’ response to this modern phenomenon was The Book Club Play, a brisk comedy about books, life, friendship, and attempted culture as told through the regular meetings of a neighborhood book club. Workshopped at various theatrical festivals, and popular on the regional theater circuit, Zacarias’ play now comes to Santa Cruz in an entertaining new production from Jewel Theatre Company.
The suburban living room in which the play is set becomes a microcosm for middle-class America “circa now.” The five book club members, who trade off selecting titles to read, meet to discuss their books over wine and nibblies, while their collective life begins to imitate the art of the stories they read: secrets are revealed, passions ignite, battle lines are drawn, relationships take unexpected turns. As one character observes, “Book Club is like Lord of the Flies with wine and dip!”
If you know the difference between Edith Wharton and Dan Brown, you’ll find plenty to laugh about in The Book Club Play. And even if you don’t, Kristen Brandt’s skillful direction and her adroit cast will keep you happily engaged.
This is one of the many smart and funny literary allusions in Zacarias’ text, many of whose jokes depend on our basic literary knowledge. But don’t worry, you don’t need to have actually read any of the books under discussion, and there won’t be a quiz. Basically, if you know the difference between Edith Wharton and Dan Brown, you’ll find plenty to laugh about in The Book Club Play. And even if you don’t, Kristen Brandt’s skillful direction and her adroit cast will keep you happily engaged.
To speed things along, Zacarias uses the device of an (unseen) video camera recording the book club meetings for a documentary film. Its camera eye is apparently located smack in the middle of the “fourth wall” (i.e.: the audience), giving each character a chance to introduce herself (or himself) to us. The club founder is Ana (a very funny Maryssa Wanlass), who writes a weekly column for the local paper. She’s a gracious hostess, a literary snob (she pouts when the club chooses to read Twilight), and a territorial martinet when it comes to book club “rules.”
Co-founder of the club is Will (Geoff Fiorito), Ana’s ex-fiancé, who’s remained close to Ana, and her husband, Rob (Brent Schindele)—whom Will considers his best bud. Will is on board with Ana’s literary pretensions—as the play begins, they’re meeting to discuss his recent choice, Moby Dick—while genial ex-college jock Rob is famous for never actually reading the club’s chosen books.
Newest member of the club is Lily (lively Tristan Cunningham), another columnist at the paper. Newly arrived in town, Lily is African-American, and a little more hip than the others (she reads ebooks), so Ana hopes she will make their reading selections more diverse. (The joke’s on Ana when Lily selects Twilight.) Rounding out the club is Jen (Sierra Jolene, in a sweet, wistful performance), a shy bookworm type with a surprisingly scandalous past who’s never gotten over her childhood crush on Heathcliff.
Tensions mount when Jen impulsively invites a neighbor she sees at the laundromat to a club meeting—even though Ana is livid that he hasn’t been properly “vetted.” Alex (Stephen Muterspaugh), a professor of comparative literature who’s fallen out of love with books and reading, plays devil’s advocate to Ana’s ideals: feeling out of touch with popular culture, he selects The Da Vinci Code.
The faux-video format is achieved with doc-style captions flashed above the stage, which also identify various non-club member interviewees (librarian; literary agent; stock manager at WAL-MART) who provide occasional commentary. As clubbers talk about “popular” vs. “quality,” and reach their various dramatic crises, the play is riddled with visual gags—from a rapt Jen mouthing all the words by heart when a juicy passage is read aloud, to the bananas served as snacks when they read Rob’s pick, The Return of Tarzan, to the way everyone preens for the camera.
All tech credits are up to the usual high JTC standard. This show is bound to be a bestseller, so get in line now.