Book clubs existed long before Oprah Winfrey started hers in 1996, but it's fair to say the queen of television made them cool again. Reading novels used to be a solitary pastime, an experience shared by reader and author. Since Oprah, book clubs have turned it into an occasion for social rendezvous — an environment of conversation that can be both combative and communal.
That's the dramatic crux of Karen Zacarias' The Book Club Play, a comedy of discomfort that opens its regional premiere at Actors' Playhouse this Friday. Over the course of two acts and several weeks, a group of longtime friends and book clubbers meets over appetizers to discuss the week's selection — regardless of whether all of them have actually read it. Healthy debate inevitably sours into latent prejudices, festering resentments, personal attacks, and paradigm-shifting revelations. One critic compared the show to "Lord of the Flies with wine and dip."
"I love any time you've got a play that puts a bunch of people in the room that are all so different and where so many discoveries can happen over the course of the play," says director David Arisco, who assembled an all-star cast of South Florida talent to make it work.
The characters include the pretentious club leader and magazine columnist Ana (Barbara Sloan); her philistine husband Rob (Stephen G. Anthony); their erudite friend Will (Michael McKeever), with whom Ana shares a romantic past; Ana's hip young co-worker Lily (Lela Elam), significantly the only character of color in the show; and Jen (Niki Fridh), Ana's friend, who was once involved in a political scandal. Their maintenance of order gradually erodes, thanks in no small part to a wild-card sixth character, Alex (Paul Tei), a rogue professor of comparative literature who accepts a controversial invitation to the club.
"It's a real team piece," Elam says. "We pretty much clicked, all of us, during first rehearsal and read-through. I'd read it so many times, but once I'd heard it with all of their voices and I got a chance to hear everybody talking, it was even better than I could have imagined it sounding in my head."
Add to the play's busy, combustible atmosphere the fact that all of the action is being "filmed." Ana accepted an offer by an unseen Danish arthouse director to allow a camera to shoot their weekly interactions for a documentary about book clubs. The more you immerse yourself in the play, the more you forget the camera's presence, just like the characters — until their regrettable outbursts, which may become the fodder for an audience of millions, bring the conceit front and center.
"It raises the stakes," McKeever says. "These moments are happening that are unguarded, and suddenly there's this beat where David has us all looking at the camera and the audience: These are our private lives, and they're being played out for people's entertainment."
"That's what's fun about the play — going back and forth to the actors being aware and not being aware," Arisco adds. "And I think that's what happens a lot in reality television."
Putting aside the characters' personal dramas and the impact of the camera, The Book Club Play stands out most as a comedy for book geeks (Books & Books is sponsoring Friday's opening-night reception). The reference-filled script investigates the merits of classic novels by posing uncomfortable questions about the value of today's pop-lit bestsellers. According to Ana, "Book Club is about elevating our conversation, our thoughts, our souls through great literature." Yet the quality of the official book club selections erodes just as the characters' union disintegrates — from the prestigious heights of Herman Melville and Edith Wharton to the commercial sewer of Stephenie Meyer and Dan Brown.
It's a shift that takes place over Ana's pointed declaration that "Twilight is not literature any more than ketchup is a vegetable." Alex, for his part, argues, "A truly cultured person reads Salman Rushdie and Danielle Steel... A truly cultured person listens to Bach and Beyoncé."
"My favorite thing the play addresses is the concept that Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey may be the Moby-Dicks of the future," McKeever says. "It's fascinating to think what makes a book last, what gives a book that kind of longevity. I thought [Zacarias] did a really good job putting it into voice, about these pop books becoming the new classics."
"Fostering a room for debate is how we open our minds and how we allow ourselves to see past our own thoughts a little bit even if we want to stick to our guns," Arisco adds. "You should at least hear a well-defined reason from the other side, which somehow people have forgotten to do in Congress."
For Arisco, producing this play has brought the presence of book clubs to his attention. "I can't tell you, since we started talking about this play, how many people I have discovered who are in book clubs," he says. "Christine Dolen, someone who used to do our PR, one of our board members... I didn't realize people did this! It became even more real to me."
In time, he discovered that book clubs are "a chance for people to get together that isn't Facebook, that isn't Twitter, that isn't the computer, that isn't email. They get together face-to-face, and they talk, and they communicate. And they become a community. We're missing that."