In an interactive age of downloads and mobile devices that bring the world to any tiny cellphone screen, the idea of actually reading a book is rapidly become something of an anachronism. It’s little wonder then that the six characters that inhabit Karen Zacarias’ comedy The Book Club Play are fiercely devoted to their biweekly gatherings. It takes an extreme mix of personalities to keep a two- hour-plus show entertaining. If the focus remained strictly on books, this would be an entirely different play altogether. But zaniness ensues when the club allows its meeting to be filmed by an unseen documentary filmmaker who not only captures their lively discussions but the personal revelations that inevitably leak out along the way.
If the storyline seems inspired by reality TV, then that’s clearly the point. Capitalizing on the theory that ordinary individuals makes the best subjects, The Book Club Play attempts to heighten the tension and inject comedy into what might otherwise be ordinary circumstances. After all, how much nuance or revelation can one expect when the talk focuses on classics like Moby Dick or Heart of Darkness?
Fortunately, Zacarias and director David Arisco are able to pluck the humor from this scenario, courtesy of characters that are both broadly relatable and exaggeratedly eccentric. Ana (Barbara Sloan) is the club’s devoted founder, her absolute commitment to the cause often borders on fanaticism. Rob, her otherwise supportive husband (Stephen G. Anthony), often seems indifferent, either because of his refusal to actually read the appointed novels or his hope of sparing himself by finding it on film. Rob’s best buddy, and Ana’s supposed former lover, Will (Michael McKeever) betrays a subtle flamboyance and a struggle with his sexuality that’s only now coming to the fore. Jen (Niki Fridh) and Lily (Lela Elam) are the junior members of the club, wacky personalities in their own right, each obviously seeking more than these intimate gatherings can offer. Finally, there’s the newcomer Alex (Paul Tei), a casual everyman with a scholarly background who immediately attracts the ire of Ana while igniting some sexual tension with Lily in particular.
Their gatherings take place at Ana and Rob’s house, designed by Jodie Dellaventura. Her sprawling set resembles the living and dining space of your average well-appointed modern home. Like most of the scene design created for the Actors’ Playhouse intimate Balcony Theater, it’s practically a spectacle in itself, one that begs the audience to spend some time nestled inside. It also has a practical purpose beyond the action that it embraces. A monitor mounted in back displays short vignettes of supposedly average people on the street testifying to their love of books during the run up to the two acts. Between scenes, the actors assume secondary roles and appear in the wings as random characters — an earnest Walmart manager, a dowdy librarian, a resident of a federal corrections facility — who describe how books impact their lives and livelihoods. It’s a bit of a distraction, but in a play that depends so much personalities, it helps buffer the mix.
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Indeed, the show’s success lies with the quirkiness of the characters themselves, with surprising revelations coming as an outgrowth of their long suppressed desires. If not for Arisco’s always astute direction and a cast that fully inhabits all the subtle nuances of the people they portray, The Book Club Play would likely descend into an overly talkative academic experience rather than the enjoyable experience it actually is.
So while the idea of having a hidden camera often seems secondary, it also allows the foibles to unfold with comedic consequences. Naturally then, the audience becomes quickly enamoured with these characters, particularly McKeever’s Will, whose tentative enthusiasm makes him the most endearing, as well as Sloan’s fidgety Ana, whose devotion to duty becomes way beyond the realm of simply presiding over the meetings. Elam also attracts special notice as the club’s only “Akron-American” (a play on the fact she’s African American but also a former native of Akron Ohio), whose sway, sashay and clear interest in Alex find her practically stealing several scenes. Anthony, Fridh and Tei also deliver their characters’ ticks as effectively as well.
Taken in tandem, The Book Club Play is quite a hoot, a lively diversion capable of keeping its audiences enthralled. Anyone seeking some thoughtful evening entertainment ought to consider club attendance to be mandatory.
The Book Club Play runs through June 7 at Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables. Phone 305-444-9293 or go online at Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre Coral Gables, Florida