“We don’t connect with each other very much anymore. We don’t have dinner parties as often. We’re connecting through social media but not talking about things that are soulful or interesting. That’s what literature does. It brings up soulful questions.” -Karen Zacarías on book clubs
The Book Club Play, which you can see at Arena Stage until November 6, is the result of an interesting collaboration between playwright Karen Zacarías and the theatre.
The Washington Post reports, “Five emerging and established playwrights — Lisa Kron, Katori Hall, Charles Randolph-Wright, Amy Freed and Zacarías — have been selected to receive, for three years, a $40,000 annual salary, health benefits and production seed money that they control to revisit older works or write new ones.” This is an amazing opportunity for a playwright and Arena Stage will produce at least one play by each of the playwrights.
I missed the play when it was a Roundhouse Theatre in Bethesda a couple of years ago, and I was happy to get the chance to see it at the (to me, still new) Arena Stage on the waterfront. I went with othere members of the Women’s National Book Association-DC Chapter–not a book club, but nonprofit professional association of women and men who work with and value books.
The trope for this play is a timely one: a controlling woman jumps at the opportunity to have her book club participate in a documentary being made by European director Lars Knudsen. In a meditation on what being filmed does to people, all of the members find that they can’t stop playing things up for the camera and the book club implodes. People in documentaries and reality television shows can’t control the camera or how they’re portrayed (unless they are directing/producing the project). And in the play, the book club members know that Knudsen has placed a camera in a black box in Ana’s living room, but they don’t know when it’s recording and when it’s not.
Of course now I wish I’d seen the original version for comparison. The play is witty and entertaining and makes excellent use of technology. Often when you see a play, you know there are lights and sound, but technology is not front and center.
This play mixes high-tech wizardry with old-fashioned low-tech theater conventions. One of the entrances to the theater has a walkway where you can hear clips from audiobooks, but before you get there, you see piles of books. The set is a living room that is sans TV. But below the set a rectangular screen alerts the audience to scene changes. And a screen above the stage plays amusing video vignettes that are supposed to be from Knudsen’s documentary.
But lest you think this play is all about watching the story unfold onscreen, the real action takes place on stage. Books are front and center as the members examine some well-known books and extract insight into their own lives. All of the initial book club members are connected to Ana—her husband Bill isn’t exactly a reader; Bill’s former college roommate, Will, who was also a Ana’s friend; Ana’s young colleague, Lily; and Ana’s messy paralegal friend Jen.
Change comes in the form of Alex. He is Jen’s neighbor and after striking up a conversation with him about the book she’s reading, she invites him to the book club (without clearing it first with the other members, specifically Type A Ana). As a new element, he messes with the status quo. Alex has suffered a recent heartbreak and his fiancée told him he lacks the passion of an Edward (Cullen, of Twilight fame), so he is now looking to popular literature (as opposed to the literary canon) to figure out what went wrong.
At times the characters’ dialogue makes them sound like they are in a PSA for reading, as some spout stats and comment on the debate over what kind of literature is worthwhile. (Not that I have a problem with this; I am a great supporter of reading). At the very end, Zacarías can’t resist placing theatre in a special place in the storytelling hierarchy when she has a character note that more than books and movies, plays are the vehicle that allows a person to remain immortal since people will continually embody that person when they step into their shoes on stage.
If you thought book clubs were stuffy or snooty, The Book Club Play demonstrates that the personalities—on the page and in the living room—are as lively and complicated as people can possibly be.