The Book Club Play, by Karen Zacarias. Directed by Kirk Jackson. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"Willful oblivion is a very smart choice!"
Seldom does one have a second opportunity to review a new play in a new version. Currently on stage at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, New York is a rewritten edition of a play I first reviewed back in 2008, a play I didn't care for much at all. While the setup is the same and the story is basically the same the author has managed to alter the characters quite a bit and where once they were merely paper-thin caricatures they are now double-dimenstion people and this seems to make all the difference. Where a funny situation had become a bad sit-com pilot of a play, this tweaked piece might well be styled a mini-masterpiece in human studies, and a very funny one at that.
A Book Club has been tapped by a documentary film-maker who has installed a camera/mike setup in the apartment of Ana and her husband, Rob. Members of the club are being taped for a future film and the object is to record their reactions to the book of the session, their interactions and their more human relationships. This setup gives the five members the opportunity to be those thin people Zacarias originally offered, thin in reality and realization, until the moment at each session where their own emotions come into play and they suddenly erupt into very real human beings with often difficult and outrageous interplay among them. This better version of the play allows for more than enough humorous responses to keep the audience both engaged and amused to the point of guffaws, applause, and responses that are as amusing as the characters themselves.
When a sixth person is added to the group the Book Club goes wild. He asks the group to read Dan Brown's "The DaVinci Code" and what happens next is a revolution in as many ways as you care to spin that word. . .and I do mean spin it. This makes for a truly hilarious second act.
A seventh actor brings to life a half dozen other people who offer commentary on the ideas of both book clubs and reading in general. Catherine Seeley plays them all, male, female, young and old, and each one is a bright characterization of a particular type, from a senior citizen sky-diver to a Wal-Mart employee who discusses her favorite book (not one you'll find at Wal-Mart). Seeley is delightful in all of her roles and her appearances cover both costume and scenic changes.
Director Kirk Jackson has an excellent cast of character players to work with in this production. Lia Russell-Self is at least seven feet tall, or so she seems, as Lily, the youngest member of the group, a black woman, new in town, a work colleague of Ana whose mind is as far-reaching as the top of her head is to the floor. I don't know if the height of this character is a given in the play, but it should be, for as Jackson uses Russell-Self in this staged version she is never the dominant visual but there is a definite point where she ought to be and the fact that Ana still dominates her is deliciously funny. The actress does a wonderful job of portraying enthusiasm at being part of something wonderful.
Her equal, if opposite, figure is Jen, played by Erin Oullette, who is as short as Lily is tall. Jen has problems which haunt her choices both personal and professional. Her needs within this club are more social than intellectual. Ouellette plays frustration brilliantly and fear of exposure with an almost classic methodology. She pairs wonderfully with Wade Simpson as Rob, the only club member who really doesn't read. A former college jock, his interests are limited and his retention is grade-schoolish. His character relies on charm and Simpson does charm very, very well.
Ana, the hostess played by Megan Demarest, is perhaps the most thinly written person in the play. Demarest uses gestures and smiles to portray this part of her character, but when emotions are let loose this actress takes the stage and literally rips out its pages and destroys all she has endeavored to create. It is a dynamic and bombastic performance as it needs to be to give us the full force of Zacarias' writing.
Morgan Morse is the great equalizer as Alex, a professor who joins the group for two sessions and wreaks havoc in every way. Alex never realizes his effect on others and so Morse's choice to play the role straight as an arrow lend to it a highly vigorous humanity that the play desperately needs at times.
Jackson seems to have given Oliver Wadsworth a lot of space for his character, Will, to grow. No one changes more than Will and if it wasn't such a wonderful ensemble piece it could be said that the play belongs to Will. He has the furthest to go in this journey of friendship and intellect and he goes all the way. Wadsworth is amusing at the start, Will being the one who lives in both denial and a world of his own making. Then he becomes a touching laugh-riot of a man who blossoms into the person we have assumed him to be. Wadsworth is wonderful in both the bombast and the subtlety.
In the small black-box theater at Hubbard Hall the production has been given a lovely look: Andrea Nice's set is perfect; Richard MacPike's costumes so wonderfully suit the characters right down to the socks; lighting and projections by Calvin Anderson keep the show literal and alive. The director has used every comedy trick in the book to keep the show active and to illustrate the good and bad sides of each character. In the original production I saw, the director who had been with the play through every stage of its development seemed to do just the opposite and what was once flat and uninteresting then has become wonderfully entertaining and enlightening now.
There is limited seating in this limited run so I encourage theater lovers to reach for the phone and make a reservation a.s.a.p. There is, honestly, little enough volume to go around and you don't want to miss your opportunity to be a part of The Book Club Play.
Lia Russell-Self, Oliver Wadsworth, Erin Oullette, Megan Demarest; photo: Kate Johnson
Catherine Seeley; photo: Kate Johnson
Morgan Morse, Wade Simpson; photo: Kate Johnson
The Book Club Play can be seen at Hubbard Hall, 25 Main Street, Cambridge, NY through March 19. For information and tickets call 518-677-2495 or go on line at www.hubbardhall.org.