Actors Theatre of Phoenix has an exhausting summer ahead. In addition to its nine special performances of revues, musical performances and one person plays, there is also a revolving door on two repertory–like productions, both comedies, that will alternate each weekend throughout the season until the middle of August, both with the same cast of six talented players.
The first of those two productions opened at the Black Theatre Troupe Building on E Washington Street this past weekend, an extremely funny comedy with some big laughs called The Book Club Play by Karen Zacarias. Early word over the last few years noted that the play had gone through several workshops and re-writes, and even though the script continues to feel clumsy in its wrap, concluding with an epilog that seems somewhat unnecessary, this is still a winning production; a thoughtful, intelligent comedy presented broadly. It’s as if writer Zacarias had plucked her characters from a farce and placed them on a set without the slamming doors.
The set up is straight forward. Control freak, Anna (Maren Maclean) runs an exclusive book club in her home that is about to be a part of a documentary by the unseen Danish documentarian, Lars Knudsen. An unobtrusive camera hangs from the ceiling in the center of the living room and is meant to be ignored. “I’ve always wanted to be on a reality show,” states one of the characters. “This is a serious documentary!” insists Anna. The introduction of the foreign filmmaker is something that evolved from re-writes and was added after the play’s initial opening. Even though it might feel like an artificial angle that doesn’t fully work – there’s something strangely awkward about it – its introduction serves an important role; the idea that all the characters are continually observed better explains their broad gestures. After all, knowing you’re being watched alters behavior, even when you’re doing your best to act natural and pretend there’s nothing there.
Besides Anna, other monthly attendees to the club are Anna’s likeable husband Rob (Joseph Kremmer) who’s not really into reading, would rather see the movie, and can’t understand why a lengthy novel like Moby Dick can be popular. “It’s so long!” he exclaims. Then there’s best friend Jen (Angelica Howland) who in an unexpected moment of passion shares a hot blooded kiss with Rob when others have left the room only to remember there’s a camera filming everyone’s every move.
Other members of the club include Will (Tyler Eglen) who not only gets excited when unlocking the secrets of The Da Vinci Code but after reading the novel unlocks an important, life-altering secret of his own, and the sensible Lily (Alexis Green) who explains to Anna’s husband the reason why Twilight’s vampire Edward Cullen doesn’t die when exposed to daylight. “The sun makes Edward sparkle,” Lily explains, to which Rob responds with a disbelieving smile, “You’re making this up.”
Then the dynamics of Anna’s world is changed when an extra character, Alex (Ian Christiansen) arrives, wanting to be a member of the Anna’s exclusive club. Alex is a professor of comparative literature whose fiancée has left him and he really needs the company of others, though once he arrives it’s obvious to him that Anna is not entirely happy with having someone in her club that was not properly vetted; at least, not by her. “Book club is like Lord of the Flies with wine and dip,” states Alex after observing that rarely does Anna like to give up the conch.
Surprisingly, there are moments when the play tackles some thoughtful reflections on what makes literature. “Popularity is not quality,” Anna declares when the notion of introducing a novel such as Twilight into the club is presented. “It’s poorly written, sexist and stupid,” declares Will, but not everyone agrees. It actually makes for a genuinely interesting debate.
Director Matthew Wiener keeps the broadness of the engaging characters under wraps as they race around Jeff Thompson’s sparse but effective living room design. It’s a comfort to be in the company of these characters played by such a likeable cast of actors made all the more exciting by the thought that next week we can revisit this same group in a different comedy, The Cottage. I can hardly wait.
For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the ATC website.