Dallas — Bibliophiles Behaving Badly? Ah, don’t act surprised. Why should book clubs be different from all the other small groups we humans belong to: families, committees, PTAs, spy rings? It’s all clashing egos, hidden jealousies, things unsaid, and even though it’s “just books”—dry words on dry paper—we know someone, inevitably, is going to get punched in the face. “Book club is just like Lord of the Flies!” cries a character from Karen Zacarias’ very funny The Book Club Play, and the audience at the Dallas Theater Center’s Kalita Humphreys Theater howls. Been there, wanted to do that.
Under crisp direction from Meredith McDonough, Zacarias’ clever, surprising script pops off the page, going beyond sitcom funny and landing somewhere closer to a ‘30s screwball comedy, with plenty of banter and action. Millions of us belong to book clubs—or live with people who do—and it’s fun to have a playwright tweak characters and plot lines that begin in a reality we know well, but end in places we couldn’t have imagined for ourselves.
Zacarias gives the play a framing device that adds to the fun: the book club’s meetings are being recorded for a reality show, and the members seem utterly incapable of remembering the unseen camera is on. In fact, we in the audience become the camera, taking in the action from the same point of view. It’s a stitch watching the cast deliver two versions of each character—the “real” person plus the one performing (badly) for the camera—and begging the invisible filmmaker to cut things they shouldn’t have said…or done.
Newspaper columnist Ana (Christie Vela) believes she’s in total control of “her” book club—though her book collector friend Will (Steven Michael Walters) repeatedly insists it was his idea. The meetings, always held in Ana’s sleek mid-century home (an embracingly circular set design by Daniel Zimmerman, with furniture that doubles as weaponry), also includes Ana’s hunky husband Rob (Jeffrey Schmidt) a reluctant participant who comes for the food but never reads the books; and Lily, Ana’s up-and-coming young coworker at the paper. Will’s childhood friend Jen (Sarah Rutan) is a regular who says book club helps her “get out of bed.”
And happily, just as we wonder where this is going, the playwright thickens the plot. Ana’s Rob actually reads a book from cover to cover, with surprising consequences. And a new character turns up at the meetings—lit professor Alex (Brandon Potter), a man with a dangerous yen to go where the book club has never gone before: toward popular novels like Twilight and The DaVinci Code. In the end, romances old/new/imaginary shift into different gears, identities are identified, and “The End” comes on an upbeat note.
This is LOL ensemble acting, with actors who know how to land the lines. As lively, leggy Lily and snarky Jen, SMU grad students Johnson and Rutan more than hold their own with the veteran actors in their DTC debut. Walters’ sweetly fussy Will is a far cry from his Thénardier in DTC’s recent Les Miz. Potter’s engaging smile and great stage voice makes Alex a welcome jolt of energy; Schmidt surprises us with a Rob who wants more out of life than we thought. And Vela is funny—and a bit terrifying—as the tightly wound Ana, who finds that living by the book isn’t the only way to happiness.
Chase York’s projections introduce each of the book club’s titles and back up short scenes that introduce us to other random book lovers—a Secret Service agent, a skydiving librarian—and there’s a roll of credits at the end you should stay to watch.
Dewey Decimal System or Library of Congress? It doesn’t matter. Put this one on the book shelf marked “Funny Stuff.”