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THEATER REVIEW: "The Book Club Play"

Just shy of best-seller


UPDATED 3/4/13: Edited to reflect that Geva Theatre has extended the run of "The Book Club Play" to March 23.

Karen Zacarías' "The Book Club Play" began life in 2008 and has continued to be workshopped, allowing the writer to polish and refine her script. It's now five years later, but the current production, currently on Geva's Mainstage through March 17, still has the feeling of a rough draft that hasn't quite gelled together. Despite its flaws, however, the show is always entertaining, and there are enough glimmers of the smart, funny show it wants to be (thanks to some smart, snappy direction and a pitch-perfect cast) to make it a worthy addition to Geva's lineup.

The play has the feel of a farce without the overly convoluted plot. In fact, the plot is rather simple: A group of friends who are members of an informal book club, agree to allow themselves to become the subjects of a documentary by a renowned international filmmaker who's making a movie about the culture of book clubs. Their meetings will be filmed by several cameras, operated remotely by the director.

Knowing that they're constantly being watched, the group members try in vain to present the best version of themselves. Things don't go as planned and, with the cameras rolling, they find themselves behaving in ways that are utterly at odds with how they'd like to be portrayed on film. Naturally, it isn't too long before secrets come out and revelations are made.

The members of the club each fall into specific types: Ana (Jessica Wortham) is the snobby, tightly-wound leader of the group (though there's a bit of contention over whether or not she was the one who actually started the club). Her husband Rob (Tom Coiner) is a bit lazy, never bothering to read the assigned books.

Jen (Kristen Mengelkoch) is an awkward, lonely paralegal, hoping to move on from a scandal in her past. Will (John Gregorio) is a prissy museum curator who also happens to be a former boyfriend of Ana and best friend to Rob.

And Lily (Brett Robinson), the newest addition to the group, is younger than the rest. She's perky, hip, and just happens to be the only black member of the book club. She fits in, but can't help occasionally feeling that she may have been brought in solely to add to the group's diversity.

All five actors are great, fleshing out their characters enough to make them feel convincing as real human beings. That's no small feat in this type of broad comedy, where performances have to be cranked up to eleven and every other line needs to be shouted. It is a definite strength of the script, however, that every character is given their chance to shine.

As if there weren't enough stress being under the watchful eye of the documentary cameras, discord abounds after certain members of the group decide that they'd like to shake things up by broadening the club's focus from the stuffy, classical novels they've been reading and branch out to more contemporary, popular books. Like "Twilight." Then Jen decides to bring a new member into the group: Alex, an excitable professor of literature from the local college. All these rapid changes force Ana to attempt to re-exert control over the group, causing chaos in the ranks.

Despite the relative simplicity of the plot, Zacarías adds too many ingredients to the pot. The documentary plotline too often feels contrived and unnecessary, and the best scenes are the ones that ignore that premise entirely. It's as though she didn't trust that her characters and their problems were interesting enough on their own and needed to heighten the drama.

Interspersed periodically throughout the story we see interviews with the other documentary subjects, everyone from a Secret Service agent to a retired sky-diving librarian, each describing the role that books have played in their life. On their own, these scenes are interesting, raising questions about why we need books and the way they can shape us as individuals. But in the context of the play, they have a tendency to stop things dead. There's also a too tidy epilogue where everything has to be tied up in a neat little package, but that's a relatively minor complaint.

The play's script touches on some interesting ideas, and by far the best scene in the show revolves around a lengthy, somewhat heated discussion that the group gets into during one meeting about the novel "Twilight." The characters bounce off one another, and the dialogue crackles as they defend their opinions, arguing over what exactly makes something "literature" and whether it's right to discount a work just because it's popular. If a book means so much to millions of people, doesn't that mean that there's something worthwhile there, no matter how poorly written it may be? The conversation feels like one that might actually occur at a book club meeting, and it's done in such an entertaining way, subtly sprinkling a few intellectual thoughts amongst the one-liners and pratfalls, that it's the one time the play truly lives up to its potential.