The Book Club Play Surprises at Berkshire Theatre Festival

A Funny and Biting Commentary on Love, Marriage and Friendships

By: - Jul 13, 2008

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The Book Club Play by Karen Zacarías, Directed by Nick Olcott with Lily/Cherise Boothe, Expert-Pundit/Sarah Marshall,  Ana/Keira Naughton,  Alex/Bhavesh Patel, Will/Tom Story, Rob/C.J. WIlson, Jen/Anne Louise Zachry.

Stage Manager, Stephen Horton,  Scenic Designer, R. Michael Miller, Costume Designer, Laurie Churba, Lighting Designer, Ann G. Wrightson, Sound Designer, J Haenbuckle, Projection Designer, Shawn E. Boyle, Casting Director, Alan Filderman. Running time: About 2 hours, 15 minutes. Through July 19.

How can a play about a bunch of thirty-something book readers be so unexpectedly funny? By not being about reading books at all, that's how.

It doesn't matter if you haven't read much lately, this show is a blast because it is really about people and their complex relationships. However, if books are important to you, we have included a list of the ones mentioned at the end of this review. This wonderful evening of theater can be enjoyed on a number of levels.

 Karen Zacarías, the author who wrote The Book Club Play is hardly a household name, but this Mexican born playwright has what we need most, the ability to make audiences laugh and be happy. Kate Maguire, the Berkshire Theatre Festival's fearless leader, deserves applause for this choice. It is perfect summertime fun, but it comes with quite a few twists.

Aided and abetted by a brilliant and risk-taking cast and director, Book Club Play works on two levels. It is laugh-until-you-cry funny, a sort of Laugh-In meets James Thurber. Quick quips and quotes begin and end the show, and tickle the funny bone throughout. Comedy is king. But coupled with that is an underlying emptiness in the pretentious and carefully constructed lives of average, normal people who take themselves entirely too seriously.

The Book Club Play is "outsider" comedy, and its ambassador of all that is different is a wonderful, magnificent character. Alex is an irreverent hipster and jokester whose attire looks so out of place among the well dressed swells on stage that most of us would dismiss him at first glance as too weird.

And there is where the fun begins, for Alex, portrayed with genius by Bhavesh Patel, is smarter and more loving than the quartet of self-involved and superficial snobs in the book club.  It is likely that the more a member of the audience identifies themselves as outside the mainstream, the more they will laugh and enjoy the wit and insights of playwright Zacarías.

This comedy received its New England premiere this weekend, and arrived with a passel of mixed reviews from its March debut at the Roundabout Theatre in Baltimore. As to the scornful critics, there  may be bad blood here, a bit of a feud between uptight arbiters of  taste who do not like having their sacred cows roasted and grilled before the public's eyes.  So to silence this satirical baby, they pick it apart to try to kill it. But from the audience reaction at the matinee I attended, the public clearly loves it.

Besides, this is not a play to put under a microscope, rather it is one of those rare gems that works best when you just sit back and let its magic work on you.  The characters are totally riveting and well drawn. You will come to detest the manipulative Ana, founder of the book club (or was it Rob - they both claim the title) whose pathos, logos and ethos leads to chaos. It takes the brilliance of an actor like Keira Naughton to find such depth in the shallowness of her character, Ana. Keira makes you love to hate Ana. Then you pity her long suffering husband Rob, played by C.J. Wilson, hoping that someday he might actually develop some real depth and character. And actually read a book.

Anne Louise Zachery is perfect as the malleable Jen whose efforts to please everyone ends up pleasing nobody; BTF regular Tom Story gives his character Will sufficient bathos to make him more to be pitied than censored; Cherise Booth as Lily is an outsider who finds herself on the inside, but barely. She can only fit in as long as she gives up her own individuality and goes along to get along. Then there are various other characters  - pundit, parachutist, wheelchair lady, literary expert - each of whom appears in cameos, all portrayed deliciously by the gifted Sarah Marshall.

The theatrical concept for this comedy is that the action on stage is happening as a documentary is being filmed about book clubs. There are times that it is clear that the participants are playing to the camera and that underscores the superficiality of what often passes for reality.

Karen Zacarias has several new plays on the boards this year, and would appear to be an ultimate insider herself. In real life she is a successful and absolutely normal thirty-something mom with a busy family that includes husband  Rett, and three children. She does all the things busy moms do, sometimes  managing to write serious plays like this in the process. But in the spirit of Erma Bombeck and Art Buchwald - or David and Amy Sedaris - she has the ability to see things freshly, and from that comes some of the funniest - and touching - moments of summer theater I have enjoyed in some time.

The Book Club Play is not to be missed,  though if you take yourself  too seriously, you may find yourself more disapproving than amused.  Fair  warning, then. It is the outsiders who are celebrated here, not the insiders.

And that is exactly why I loved it.

Quick Link to Berkshire Theatre Festival

Books mentioned or discussed during the play:

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
Pat the Bunny by Dorothy Kunhardt
Sounder by William H. Armstrong and James Barkley
The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton
Tarzan, Lord of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
The Divine Comedy by Dante
Moby-Dick; or The Whale by Herman Melville
The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov 
Ulysses by James Joyce
Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway 
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez 
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Moseley
Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell 
Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
Charlotte's Web by E.B. White 
Son of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes
Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton 
Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom