October 27, 2011 | by Patrick Folliard
Rules of the club

‘The Book Club Play’
Through Nov. 6
Arena Stage
1101 Sixth Street, SW
$45-$85
202-554-9066
arenastage.org

From left, Tom Story, Rachael Holmes, Fred Arsenault, Kate Eastwood, Ashlie Atkinson and Eric Messner in ‘The Book Club Play’ at Arena Stage. (Photo by Scotty Beland; courtesy Arena Stage)

Ana’s book club is very exclusive. For the longest time there were only four members. A fifth was admitted after passing a private vetting process.

The group’s weekly gatherings have remained the same — comfortably social and predictably gratifying. But all that is about to change. When the club becomes the subject of a documentary film and a controversial new member is added to the mix, this cozy little literary haven is ripped apart at its bindings.

Karen Zacarías’ “The Book Club Play” draws from that popular Oprah-approved literary phenomenon where readers gather in private homes to presumably discuss assigned books. Some groups are quite serious while others are thinly veiled excuses for eating, talking and drinking wine. Whatever the case, judging from the audience’s knowing reactions to the comedy at a recent matinee performance in Arena Stage’s intimate Cradle space, many of us have been there.

Set in Ana’s comfortable living room, the action begins with members agreeing to allow their club to be filmed as a highbrow documentarian’s latest project. Pretentious and controlling Ana (Kate Eastwood Norris), a newspaper columnist and clearly the group’s crowned monarch, is all for it. Other members including dramatic bachelor Will (Tom Story), Ana’s mostly easy going husband Ron (Eric M. Messner), and Lily (Rachael Holmes), a young editor and the club’s sole ethnic minority, are equally smitten with the idea. Only Jen (Ashlie Atkinson), a harried paralegal and Bronte sisters fan is hesitant, but the mere thought of absenting herself from book club throughout filming is unthinkable, so she signs off on the release too.

Initially the ever-present camera prompts awkward but humorous responses: Of course, Ana strives (not always successfully) to appear correct – politically and otherwise. Her husband, a former college quarterback, is prone to a bit of preening and sideways glances. But eventually all grow comfortable with being filmed and some hilarious moments spontaneously unfold like when Lily assumes Will is gay, and Ron sadly identifies with discontentedly married Newland in Edith Wharton’s “Age of Innocence.”

There’s a turning point in the play: friendly Jen flouts the rules by inviting a neighbor to book club without first getting members’ approval. Alex (Fred Arsenault), a slightly disheveled (note the mismatched socks) comparative lit professor, is mending a broken heart by rediscovering his passion for books. His evolving theory is that to be a truly culturally conversant person one must read classics and bestsellers alike. This doesn’t go down too well with elitists Ana and Will, but the club goes ahead with the heretofore unthinkable — they read “The Da Vinci Code.”

Incredibly, Will loves the lowbrow novel. In fact, he credits the mega-seller with enabling him to connect with his true sexuality. Suddenly the museum curator who grew up voraciously reading “Winnie the Pooh” and “Paddington Bear” acknowledges his passion for two legged bears — big, strapping, hairy men. (He sees himself as more of an otter than a bear — still hairy but smaller.) Simultaneously, autocratic Ana feels her grasp on the club’s leadership quickly weakening and she’s not quite sure what to do with that.

Between scenes, six filmed bibliophilic vignettes featuring each of the cast members playing varied booklovers (butch beautician, Wal-Mart manager, crass literary agent, shark attack survivor and skydiving granny) completely different from their characters are projected against the back of Donald Eastman’s spare set. Ashlie Atkinson is especially funny as a tough lady inmate who distributes books but doesn’t read. She adheres to that old adage about not dabbling in what you deal.

Yes, the characters are stock — uptight wife, henpecked husband, precious gay guy, etc. — and yes, “The Book Club Play’s” humor can be sitcom caliber. But Arena’s fresh and snappy production with its excellent cast and Molly Smith’s confident staging nicely makes the most of both the play’s more thoughtful and laugh-out-loud moments.

 

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