The latest offering, The Book Club Play, at 16th Street Theater in Berwyn, is not the troupe’s typically edgy drama, thrusting the audience into intense, cutting-edge social issues. The current production is an entertaining comedy about the politics and personalities that cause friction within a long-established book club. The slightly sitcom-ish plotting at times feels contrived, though Latina playwright Karen Zacarias provides plenty of zingers. The often smart, funny dialogue covers the popular contemporary phenomenon of book clubs, the intricate relationships and conflicts that can develop, and the difference between high and low culture.
The strong ensemble and tight direction by Kevin Christopher Fox make this show a lot of fun. Each of the actors is given a chance to shine and make his or her character real.
16th Street Theater’s artistic director, Ann Filmer, who usually introduces each production and directs many of the shows herself, this time is an actress who plays a key character: pretentious Ana (pronounced “AH-nuh”), the control freak leader who imposes many strict rules. Filmer brings tightly-wound intensity as well as vulnerability to a character who might otherwise come off as strictly snotty or mean-spirited.
Brad Harbaugh is Ana’s otherwise supportive but lazy former jock husband Rob who never bothers to read any of the assigned books. He just shows up for the food. He cannot understand how a hefty novel like Moby Dick could ever become popular. Also, Rob’s plans for their marriage do not match up with Ana’s.
The only African American member of the book club is Lily, played by Jennifer Glasse. She’s Ana’s co-worker and protege, a hip, up-and-coming, young journalist.
Scatterbrained, lonely underachiever Jen, a personal and professional failure, is played by Hannah Gomez. Jen has a scandal in her past.
Will, a museum curator played by Gary Alexander, had been Rob’s undergrad roommate and Ana’s former boyfriend in college. She’s convinced his torch still burns for her, but Will has a different secret he keeps hidden.
One of the group members causes great tension when an invitation to join the group is extended to a lonely-looking outsider, which violates all protocol for “vetting” potential new members. Things begin to quickly unravel.
The new member, a lit professor named Alex, is a wild card played by Jesse Dornan. He really needs the company of others since his fiancee has left him.
The gimmick the plot hinges upon is that the members of this book club are to become the subjects of an upcoming documentary by a famed Danish filmmaker. Ana wants the film to project a picture-perfect image of a sophisticated book group enjoying in-depth discussions about literary classics.
The all-seeing, remote-controlled camera, perched aloft in the center of the room, is always trained on the book club. Their every move is being photographed; every word is recorded. The camera cannot be controlled, turned off, or edited.
Knowing they’re constantly being observed, the members try to put their best version of themselves on display. At first they feel self-conscious, uncomfortable, and exposed. But before long secrets are revealed and tensions erupt. The chaos of clashing personalities creates reality TV complications.
Territorial Ana refers to the group as “my book club.” Though it’s a source of great pride to her, Ana’s unable to keep the members from spiraling out of control.
Interspersed throughout the comedy are short monologues with a few folks (cast members doubling up on these extra little roles) who comment on the impact of literature on their lives and relationships. Among the assortment there’s a retired sky-diving lady librarian, an earnest Walmart book stocker, and a resident of a federal corrections facility. These vignettes no doubt were created to provide a transitional pause before the next scene but sometimes they seem to disrupt the pace of the show.
Many of the laughs are about books. Specifically, we witness the tension between the highbrow aspirations of classic literature like The Age of Innocence and contemporary bestsellers like The Da Vinci Code. But the play is never just a talky academic experience.
The elegant set, designed by Anthony Churchill, includes several bookcases and a window that at times becomes a television projection system. There are Prairie School touches and art glass on the front door.
The original music and sound design is by Barry Bennett.
The relatively simple plot of The Book Club Play is somewhat predictable but the audience really responded positively to the many hilarious bits.
The play lasts 2 hours and 15 minutes with one 10-minute intermission.