Entertainment » Theatre

The Book Club Play

by James Wilkinson
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Oct 7, 2019
Becca A. Lewis and Rachel Cognata in "The Book Club Play" at Boston Playwrights' Theatre through October 13
Becca A. Lewis and Rachel Cognata in "The Book Club Play" at Boston Playwrights' Theatre through October 13  (Source:Stratton McCrady)

There are days when I feel like the theatrical reincarnation of Seuss' Grinch. Times at the theater when I'm surrounded by a crowd of people who are having a deep response to what's on the stage in front of them and I'm left thinking to myself, "God, I wish I was seeing the show that you all are."

I had one of these evenings at Boston Playwrights' Theatre's new production of Karen Zacarias' "The Book Club Play." The performance played to a packed house of audience members that had no trouble tapping into the good time that the play wanted them to have (with a certain few bursting into laughter at just about every other line). My own reaction was much more reserved and never really rose above a few chuckles. The discrepancy between the experiences ended up being so vast that at one point in the second act I turned my gaze towards the audience, more interested in watching them and desperate to crack the nut of what exactly they were responding to. I'm not sure that I ever got it, but I can at least demystify my own experience.

Perhaps my Grinch nature is getting the best of me. My disappointment with "The Book Club Play" might have to do with the fact that, as I was talking about with another critic pre-show, the production is virtually a "murderers' row" of Boston theatre. There's so much talent stuffed on stage, people who have been brilliant elsewhere and recently, that you can't help but have high expectations. I think that the extent that the play does succeed comes from the moxie that the creative team brings to the material, but they do their job so well that it forces you to ask, "In service of what?" What exactly are we left with as the actors are taking their bows? Not much, I'd argue, and I think that many of my issues with the play boil down to how its drama is constructed. It throws out a number of different pieces (some of which are chock-full of potential) but seems uninterested in letting those ideas build to anything meaningful.

As the title lays out, Zacarias' play is about a book club. Married couple Ana (Becca A. Lewis) and Rob (Sean Patrick Gibbons) host gatherings with a number of their friends and colleagues to drink wine and discuss the week's chosen book. On its own, it's not an original premise (off the top of my head, I can think of at leastone movie and television show with the same premise, (one called "The Book Club," the other "The Book Group"), but Zacarias introduces a new element to the set-up with some intriguing possibilities. For the next few months, this book club is being filmed by a world-renowned documentarian for his next project. Every move that these people make could show up on the big screen at the Cannes Film Festival. We'll never meet this much-revered filmmaker though oddly he becomes a kind of stand-in for Zacarias. Much like a certain kind of documentary film, the play is meant to be a character study. (The set completes the illusion by providing a border that mimics the boundaries of a movie screen.) Zacarias' narrative is mostly built by letting the characters interact and seeing what happens. We even get a few into the camera monologues. But while there are some intriguing avenues that the play could go down if it were willing to really dig into its characters, at every opportunity, the play chooses to hold back.

The documentary film aspect of the plot is actually a prime example of this. Designer Jeffrey Peterson provides a gorgeous set that seems ripped from a home renovation on HGTV. When you eventually meet the very Type-A Ana, it feels absolutely correct that a person like that would live in a house like this, all elegant throw pillows and Restoration Hardware furniture. A large, circular window resembling an eye sits on the upstage wall, it's center occasionally blinking red a la Kubrick's HAL 9000. But that blinking light is a bit misleading as it gives the impression that the voyeuristic element of the plot is going to be much more present than it actually is. Instead, it often feels like something pulled out when the story needs a temporary boost.

Take an early scene where Ana produces two red envelopes from the documentarian which contain discussion questions for the group. Reading the question aloud provokes a certain response from the group and the implication is that this is something that will happen again over the course of the meetings (which, again, could make for a fascinating play with an unseen director pulling the characters' strings). But it doesn't. These red envelopes never appear again and nor does any other kind of director baiting. So if it's not going to be tied to anything, then what was the point of it happening the first time other than to kick off half a scene's worth of plot? Late in the show, a character says that the camera has made them all self-conscious, but that's never shown to be the case. Any time the camera is pointed out to the characters, they shrug it off a few lines later. And if this is the attitude that the play is going to take to the documentary, then why have the story element in at all? Why not just write a play about a book club?

This problem of story elements only going so far also extends to the character's personalities. Take an early scene where two characters kiss (spoilers prevent me from noting which two), supposedly the result of long-burning passions. We're led to believe that this action comes from a life-changing decision, but we never see the characters deal with it in a meaningful way. We get a quick laugh when the two realize that they're on camera, but that's about it. Later in the play, one of these two brushes off the kiss (in which case, how revelatory could it have been in the first place?) and the other never addresses their emotions about it. So from a story point of view, it seems that the kiss is only there to get a few throwaway gags. That's it. Or take another scene where William (Greg Maraio) has a rather profound revelation of his own. Once more, spoilers prevent me from detailing what it is but suffice to say it's one that has a number of messy (and, story-wise, potentially juicy) implications for his life. It would be interesting to watch the character try to wrestle with these implications, but instead, he integrates this life-change with the difficulty of someone switching brands of coffee.

Again, part of the reason this all sticks out is that the acting team is so excellent. They all play off of each other with bouncy jubilant ease. You wish that the script gave them more to do. Becca A. Lewis, in particular, has had a hell of a year theater-wise. I'm still raving about the Apollinaire Theatre production of "The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart" that she was in a few months ago with Brooks Reeves (who reteams with her here in a part where he's only onstage for a total of about five minutes, but Reeves reliably wrings every moment for all its comedic worth). And while I, unfortunately, missed them (and co-star Rachel Cognata) in Company One's production of "Greater Good," I heard good things. I think Lewis could do this role in her sleep (something that actually, I would pay good money to see) but that's because the script only gives her one thing to do, play a Type-A personality that winds tighter and tighter. You feel that she could do more and she's not the only good one on stage. A few years ago, I thought Greg Maraio's performance was the high point of Boston Playwrights' production of "Brawler" and he's a welcome presence here. Rachel Cognata and Meredith Gosselin also manage to bring a lot of charm to their roles.

And I would extend my good gracious to director Shana Gozansky, who seems to have a talent for staging these kinds of ensemble character comedy. I was tickled by her production of "Barefoot in the Park" up at Gloucester Stage Company this summer. Here, I think she wisely keeps the staging a bit more restrained. She doesn't let her actors run around the stage the way they were in "Barefoot." Instead, she builds the energy by letting the characters stand their ground as they engage in the many tiny battles of will that the book club inspires.

There's a scene mid-show where the book club is reading Stephanie Meyers' "Twilight," much to the teeth-grinding chagrin of Ana and William. The set-up of the scene indicates that we're supposed to find their snobbishness about a turn-off, that the play is arguing that even pop culture potboilers can have the impact of 'great' literature. But the humor of the scene (what the audience around me was laughing at) came from the lines where characters were defending "Twilight." So at the same time that the play is asking us to take "Twilight" seriously, it's also asking us to laugh at the fact that the characters are taking "Twilight" seriously.

This is what I mean when, for all that's good about the production, there's something disingenuous about "The Book Club Play." As the play goes into its final moments and each character has a happy ending fall into their lap, you feel cheated (at least, I did). At the start of the play, one character says that what she loves about her Book Club is the sense of community it gives her. But by the end, everyone on stage feels miles away.

"The Book Club Play" is presented by and at Boston Playwrights' Theatre September 26-October 13, 2019. For tickets and more information, visit their website: visit the Boston Playwrights' Theatre website.

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