- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Washington-area playwright Karen Zacarias’ new work, “The Book Club Play,” is a light, pleasurable read that should charm anyone who has ever sat in a living room with a disparate bunch of strangers, nibbling on macadamia-oat bran scones and sipping Earl Grey while discussing “Northanger Abbey.”

Miss Zacarias’ comedy aims at lofty literary meditations on the power of books to soothe souls and transform lives, but misses most of the targets.

As directed with a full bag of tricks and furbelows by Nick Olcott, “The Book Club Play” is best when it operates like a crowd-pleasing best-seller rather than when it tries to be like a quirky, inquisitive voice from a small press.

The play looks at a year in the life of a long-standing book club that’s being filmed for a documentary created by graduate students. The play actually opens with nifty, multi-screen montage by projection designer JJ Kaczynski, a special effect that at first beguiles. But after each sound bite-sized scene is announced with a title shot and burbling theme music, it becomes cutely annoying.

The documentary device does have its merits, since the sublime Sarah Marshall plays all the interviewees, ranging from a National Public Radio commentator and a legless construction worker to a Wal-Mart book department manager (whose favorite work is “Lolita,” which the store would never stock) and a substitute teacher working on a tome about disenfranchised urban youth.

The club is presided over by Ana, pronounced “Aaah-na” (Lise Bruneau, who manages to be both insufferable and compulsively watchable), a bubbly perfectionist with a pretentious streak thicker than “War and Peace.” Her partner in posturing is Will (Sasha Olinick), a stodgy history buff and closeted homosexual. Rounding out the group is Ana’s easygoing and pulp fiction-loving husband Rob (Jason Paul Field, whose laid-back physicality nicely counterbalances the play’s emphasis on the mind); Ana’s conflicted best friend Jen (Connan Morrissey, delicately playing up the play’s farcical elements); and newcomer Lily (Erika Rose, a strong, bemused presence), the club’s lone stab at ethnic diversity.

The club plods amiably through “Moby Dick” and other classics while enjoying Ana’s gourmet meals and marzipan delicacies until Jen unwittingly upsets the book cart by inviting an upstart, the quip-crazy Alex (a sunnily unhinged Matthew Detmer), into the mix. Alex’s commando punning throws the group so off-balance that Ana goes to desperate — some might say sociopathic — measures to make things the way they were before.

The plot turns are as plentiful and convoluted as a William Faulkner run-on sentence. In a climactic scene, incited by the reading of Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence,” Will plants a surprise smooch on Rob, who confesses his crush on Jen, who in turn blurts out that she wants to be impregnated by Alex. Ana trumps them all, while Lily stares on the sidelines at the antics of white people.

It all seems like a bookish version of “Friends,” and the play moves into ditzier territory when Miss Zacarias attempts to weave all the themes and twists into an epilogue that seems longer than the previous two acts. Here is where the preciousness of the writing becomes woefully evident and the severely episodic nature of the piece gets cumbersome. The actors seemed a bit daunted by the machinations of the epilogue and the ending, which is a stretch even for lovers of fiction.

With her astutely observed characters — many have put up with such personalities at monthly book confabs — and gift for capturing the finely tuned ludicrous behavior of self-involved people, “The Book Club Play” can be a joyous page-turner. The audience at a performance last week, mostly groups of book club members, laughed at every line and gasped at every plot kink as if it were the word of Oprah herself.

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WHAT: “The Book Club Play” by Karen Zacarias

WHERE: Round House Theatre Bethesda, 4545 East West Highway, Bethesda

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through March 2.

TICKETS: $25 to $60

PHONE: 240/644-1100

WEB SITE: www.roundhousetheatre.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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