review by: Ali Goldstein
Let’s begin by judging this book by its cover. The Book Club Play, the latest comedy at Arena Stage (playing now through November 6th), is a play about a book club and its coterie of members. There’s Ana — pronounced with a long “A” — the picture-perfect career woman who runs the book club down to the lox spread she serves. There’s Jen, the forgetful and overworked paralegal who always leaves a glass stain on Ana’s countertop. There’s Ana’s doltish jock of a husband Rob and his sweater-vest wearing curator counterpart, Will. There’s Lily, the club’s necessarily hip twenty-something, and Alex, the comparative literature professor she falls in love with. Their lives intersect and their storylines get pulled to the surface as they discuss the books and each other.
However, through the lens of D.C. area playwright Karen Zacarias and famed Arena Stage director Molly Smith, this play becomes so much more than it’s disarmingly simple cover of a title suggest. The characters veer from readers to subject to muse in this always complex, often hilarious, and occasionally poignant look at how people relate to art, to community, and to each other. It’s an intellectual take on what happens when you become the subject of your own life, performed by talented actors that make you laugh so hard you forget that you’re also thinking and examining.
The story begins with Ana staring into the lens of an imaginary camera. Her husband Rob blinks up at the light of the audience, a touch of in-the-spotlight pride melded onto his face along with fear and surprise. The book club is to be the subject of a documentary by the “famed” Danish filmmaker Lars Knudsen as he tackles the American phenomenon of book clubs. “Don’t look at the camera!” the characters echo throughout the play as they dart furtive glances up at the imaginary lens.
The camera does and and does not change the book club’s comforting pattern. Ana continues to cook the food and host the club in her perfectly-modern living room; Jen forgets her keys and needs a ride home; Rob does not read the book. By putting her characters beneath the glare of an imaginary camera, however, Zacarias nurtures a self-consciousness in her characters that pulls their secrets to the surface and propels the plot forward.
Writers always have the freedom to stare and create without the obtrusiveness of a camera, but by telling her story through the pretense of a documentary, Zacarias invites you to glimpse how the act of looking transforms people into characters. Alex and Lilly and Jen and Rob are all readers, but they are also the subjects of a play, a documentary, and Ana’s book.
These were once content people in a book club. But beneath our gaze they transform and confess. They question their sexuality; they admit to loneliness; they ache with dissatisfaction; they lose their control. In short, they become characters. Where art stops and reality begins is always unclear as Zacarias pulls the audience in and out of the storyline. There are so many layers of looking that the audience is never quite sure through what lens they’re considering the characters.
Zacarias’ complex prism of a plot renders this play intellectually satisfying enough to make any former literature major swoon. In the same way that Cezanne’s paintings are as pretty to look at as they are philosophically complex, however, the wittiness of the script and adept acting make this play human and hilarious at its core. In the hands of this skillful team of actors, these are characters we know and believe in as they search for the same narrative and romance they’re reading in their real lives.
The story unfolds with constant high-energy hilarity; you will laugh as the epiphanies careen across the stage, including your own. At the end of the play, simultaneously touched by how closely the characters’ storylines veer to your own and laughing so hard you’re crying, you come to realize this: that with or without a camera’s glare, we’re all searching for that story that makes us, us.
One last disclaimer. There’s a strong possibility you’ll call your friends right after the show and urgently say: let’s start a book club.