Like the page-turners that stubbornly end up being discussed in The Book Club Play, Karen Zacarias’ comedy is slight, cute and occasionally infuriating, but its area premiere at Dallas Theater Center is ultimately entertaining.
That might be the same reaction that serious bibliophiles — like some characters in the play — might have to books like Twilight or The Da Vinci Code. Hey, perhaps those who were among the first to read novels we now consider literary hallmarks, like Melville’s Moby-Dick or Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights or Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, might have felt similarly about those works.
That argument — of what literary heft and the value of reading and connecting on a personal and immediate level mean — is one of the rewards of Zacarias’ script, which is given a funny production under the direction of Meredith McDonough. Not as rewarding are the archetypal characters and stale dialogue.
Ana (Christie Vela) is a book lover and newspaper columnist who has hosted a longtime book club with her husband, Rob (Jeffrey Schmidt), their college buddy Will (Steven Michael Walters) and friend Jen (Sarah Rutan). New at the outset of the play is Lily (Tiana Kaye Johnson), a colleague of Ana’s; and later, Alex (Brandon Potter), a comparative literature professor who brings radical change to the group dynamic.
On Daniel Zimmerman’s lovely scenic design of Ana and Rob’s living room, and in costumer Jennifer Ables’ well-considered contemporary outfits (love how book snobs Ana’s and Will’s looks reflect the shift in the reading selections), the action begins as a tightly wound discussion of literature and morphs to something out of Ana’s control in intermittently hilarious and eye-rolling ways.
The play’s characters follow a familiar trajectory that happens when different personality types are in the same room together.
The character of Will, for example, is especially frustrating as stereotypes continue to unfurl; for his part, Walters plays them exactly the script demands. As the extremely Type A host, Vela smartly plays Ana as one of the more common, and relatable, sorts of narcissist. She isn’t aware that she is one, and probably has denied that accusation in the past. She’s a late bloomer in realizing that maybe it isn’t all about her, but at least that awareness happens.
The others in the cast give winning performances, but they don’t have to work very hard. Zacarias’ characters might have been selected from a spreadsheet of types (Column A needs more neurosis, Column B more disorder, etc.). In the end you’ll recognize them all, if not as people you know, then as people you’ve seen portrayed in similar formulas.