The Book Club Play by Karen Zacarias. Directed by Nick Olcott.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Book Club is not life or death."
Thank God for talented people. They can perform extraordinary surgery. They can inspire us to learn. They can remove our pain with a gallant sweep of a hand. Sometimes they can even turn the mediocre into the marvelous. A talented crew of seven superb players is performing that latter miracle at the Berkshire Theatre Festival where a new play, "The Book Club Play," is gracing the main stage for a few weeks.
This is a play that has had only one previous production, also directed by Nick Olcott who has been a part of this show’s history since at least its first development stage at the Theater of the First Amendment in Fairfax, Virginia in March, 2005. He has hardly missed a single stage of the work required to hone and sharpen the playwright’s vision and it is possible he has spent too much time too close to the project. Even with a remarkable cast, as this production has, a fresh perspective could have made the difference between an acceptable, amusing evening and a truly wonderful stage work.
There are laughs in this play. There is a bit of melodrama, too. At the end of the two hours, however, neither of those elements leaves an audience truly satisfied. The laughs have been sporadic and rarely more than chuckles. The melodrama hasn’t been broad enough to make us snicker, or sinister enough to make us smirk; it has only left us wondering where the honest drama might be hiding. And the problem isn’t the talent pool, it’s the swimming hole they’re caught in without the necessary inner tube to use for a flotation device.
Here are five people, a book club that meets monthly to discuss an agreed-upon book. Three are old friends, friends since college and two of them are married. A young woman who has much in common with this trio has been a member for a while and a new, younger woman, a black woman, a woman of color, has been added to the group. Everyone in this group tries to remain civil and politically correct, but it’s hard when there are three old friends, a core, and two satellites who try not to collide. They are all being "best behavior" candidates because they have agreed to be filmed for a documentary on the book club phenomenon. They try to maintain an almost inhuman dignity for the camera, but they are too entrenched in one another’s lives to make that work for long.
Styled as a cut version of the documentary, the show veers out of scenes for "talking heads" sequences spotlighting the members of this group, an interloper among them, and eight "stand-ups" or people who have been interviewed for comments on the group dynamic, or on books, or on reading - these are unfocused interviews. The principal difficulty with this technique is that it isn’t truly used in the visual sense. While a total blackout of the bright, white and beige set, its inhabitants and its props with a talking head isolated in a tight light would simulate the look of a documentary, this never happens in the show. Instead we soft focus on one or another player with everyone else, and everything else, fully visible. This deprives us of the playwright’s visual intention. In this presentation there is no proper introduction of the premise of the documentary, a dissertation project by and for unseen grad students, so we are dropped into the first full scene which addresses the camera idea without explanation or understanding. Not a good idea.
Like a few other ideas, including deep discussions about literature and the proper food to accompany the right book, this documentary concept goes pretty much unaddressed. Instead it takes the opportunity to introduce us to a host of wonderful, minor characters, all played by one delightful actress, Sarah Marshall, whose range includes a Williams College co-ed, an aging Wal-Mart male employee and an octogenarian retired librarian sky-diver. Marshall seems to have no character role limitations and she manages to pull them all off brilliantly. Many of the funniest, most memorable moments in this play are hers, and hers alone. In retrospect the lines she delivers are not as funny as their delivery, not as memorable as the voice that pronounces them.
Keira Naughton has the thankless role of Ana, the leader of the pack, who fears the loss of control over things in her life. She reaches into the deepest places in her heart and mind for ways to hold on to old friends and the club she needs for a certain personal fulfillment. She even plays the death card to try to instill loyalty in her very loyal compatriots. Ana goes too far and Naughton, with her talent intact, tries to make it work, but not even a genius could ultimately make Ana as likeable as she believes she truly is already.
Her husband, Rob, is played by the handsome and muscular, particularly his chest development, C. J. Wilson. Wilson has the thankless role of a book club member who doesn’t read. Try to play that with much heart! Wilson pulls it off brilliantly, with a look, a sigh, a shrug. He’s the real McCoy in the acting world, a man who makes manliness inoffensive.
Their best friend, Will, is played by Tom Story, a BTF favorite. Story’s Will is a pathetic man with oddly comic sensibilities. We want to sympathize with him, but cannot because he is such an ass, and then we fall for his shortcomings, pity him and want to comfort him. Story leads us through these changes with a simple ease that makes the character of Will into a dearly beloved fool.
Jen, the slightly dopey, never-in-charge friend, is given a vigorous shot of life by Anne Louise Zachry. As the object of much affection in this play, Zachry moves her Jen in circles and lets her grip furniture, grip books tighter, and miss the arms of people entirely when she is in need of support. She has the loveliest voice and she manages to turn it into a spewing machine, now and then, without the slightest need of a breath. She gives new life to the concept of the monologue.
Bhavesh Patel plays Alex, a neighbor who is roped into the club, kicked out of the club and restored on sufferance. He brackets his honest moments with the closest thing this show has to slapstick. He is a knee-slapper comic without a proper punch-line, and like the other characters in this play, he is more a caricature, a type, than he is a character with a human side, failings, desires, skills. He plays the man beautifully, but what Alex can never be is THE man. Patel manages to get all of these subtleties into an exquisite performance.
Topping the charts in this show, barring Marshall’s show-stopping versatility, is Cherise Boothe as Lily, the younger, blacker woman. Boothe is the outsider, let in and loving it. Whether she is a snob about this or a sufferance I cannot tell, because the play is never clear about it. She is another of Ana’s friends and compatriots, but she is never made to feel a true profit-sharer in this profitless experience. Boothe can load a line for impact with the best of them, and she can also register the required emotional looks and gestures. She does it all with a naturalness that would be perfection in a play about anything natural, but we have the dysfunctional, and sketchy and caricature stylings of the author to deal with in this case and even Lily cannot escape that sense of being incomplete, a bit shallow and a bit compensated for in the playing.
There are projections which help to form the visual concept of a documentary film. In their current placement on R. Michael Miller’s stark white set they can be easily missed by audience members concentrating on the actors. Some of them are funny enough to get their own laughs; others are helpful. There is even a credit role at the end which should be speeded up substantially.
Laurie Churba’s costumes seem to get each character well defined, but these people are painted in such thin layes of watercolor that their costumes could be even more aggressive in creating that definition.
Zacarias has good ideas but she has not allowed her cast of characters to live, only to be painted in their comic strip panels. She has imposed a device that is hard to make work and if we, the audience, try to ignore it we are jerked to one side for a monologue out of scene by one of the group or a monologue by a total stranger whom, we realize in short order, we’ll never see again so why care about this person. It would seem that the author has a lot to say but only says it in some sort of encoded shorthand. A new director might be able to pull some of that into the show and make it truly worthy of such a beautiful production and such superb actors. In this edition we simply have Saturday Night Live skits played over and over by the same actors in the same roles: not the stuff of stellar comedy or stellar drama either. This show’s shortcomings deprive it of true greatness.
Seen one performance prior to opening night
Sarah Marshall as an octogenarian sky-diver; photo: Kevin Sprague
Cherise Boothe, Keira Naughton, C.J. Wilson; photo: Kevin Sprague
Wilson, Bhavesh Patel, Tom Story, Anne Louise Zachry; photo: Kevin Sprague
The Book Club Play performs on the Main Stage of the Berkshire Theater Festival on Route 102 and Route 7 in Stockbridge, Massachusetts through July 19. Tickets range form $46-$80 but students with valid Ids may receive a 50% discount. For schedules and tickets, call the box office at 413-298-5576.