Saturday, January 28, 2023

"The Book Club Play" at Theatre in the Round

I used to be in a Book Club with a group of work friends. Once a month we would gather at someone's house, eat good food, drink wine, catch up on each other's lives, and maybe eventually get around to talking about the book. Which not everyone read, but I always did, and I would get frustrated that not many people wanted to actually talk about the book, at Book Club! I relate perhaps a little too much to the character Ana in Karen Zacarías'* hilarious play The Book Club Play, now on stage at Theatre in the Round. It's essentially a study of humanity as seen through the very specific phenomenon known as the Book Club. It's also an exploration of books, literature, art, and what makes some worthy and some not, some popular and some not. And are those two things mutually exclusive? You can see the very funny, real, and relatable The Book Club Play at the oldest theater in Minneapolis weekends through February 19.

Our Book Club is run by the aforementioned Ana (Siri Hellerman), who perhaps takes it (and herself) a little too seriously. She started the club with her good friend Will (Tony Burton), although she's loathe to admit that it wasn't all her idea. They're joined by Ana's husband Rob (Ben Tallen), who's just kind of along for the ride (he's the one who never reads the book), their friend Jen (Rachel Postle), and Ana's new young colleague Lily (Eni Ogundipe), who may or may not have been a diversity invite. But this Book Club has a twist - they're being filmed for use in a documentary by an acclaimed Danish director, which makes everything heightened as people try to be on their best behavior, and then are appalled when they forget the cameras are there and say (or do) something they shouldn't. When Jen invites her neighbor Alex (Matthew Kraft) to join the club, without following the proper vetting procedures, things start to get even more crazy. The selection of books takes a turn, and some books inspire some readers to admit long-held secrets, or make amazing life discoveries. That's the beauty of art, when it resonates, inspires, and enlightens so much that you'll never be the same again.

I would've happily watched this group of lovable oddballs, as portrayed by this fantastic cast, for two hours, which alone would make for a delightful play. But the playwright also inserted some absurd little interstitial monologues by various unrelated characters talking about their love of books - a prison librarian, a senior citizen inspired to try sky-diving, a federal agent who loves Hemingway. These monologues aren't necessary for the story, but provides another perspective on books and the people who love them. And they also provide additional entertainment value, particularly thanks to Bailey J. Hess' spot on portrayal of every wacky one of them.

the happy club: Siri Hellerman, Ben Tallen, Tony Burton,
Rachel Postle, and Eni Ogundipe (photo by Anya Magnusen)
Each scene of the play corresponds to one biweekly Book Club, beginning with the classics Moby Dick and Age of Innocence, then the more popular fare Twilight and The Da Vinci Code, and finally, The Return of Tarzan (I've read one of these books, I'll let you guess which one). Each meeting comes with a change of clothes, which helps us to realize the passage of time, each character's wardrobe telling us more about them (stylish Will, casual Rob, trendy Lily). The in-the-round space is filled with typical living room furniture, plus four ugly black boxes holding the not-so-hidden documentary cameras, complete with black and yellow striped tape covering the wires weaving all over the room. I was sitting behind the couch, but didn't feel at all slighted because characters move freely around the space facing all directions. Director Shanan Custer makes good use of the space, and utilizes her great sense of comedy and timing to mold this cast into a tight comedic ensemble. (Set design by Greg Vanselow, costume design by Rebecca Karstad.)

In the play, Ana makes a clear distinction between "real literature" and mere drivel, like Twilight. Alex, a literature professor, questions the definition of "literature." If millions of people read and love a book like Twilight or The Da Vinci Code, books that literature critics might pan, doesn't that mean something? Lily points out that Romance is one of the best-selling genres, yet again, critics don't take it seriously. It feels like that may be changing lately with the popularity of TV shows adapted from Romance series like Bridgerton and Outlander (I'm obsessed with the latter, just ordered the entire series of the former), but it again begs the question - just because something is hugely popular (particularly among women), does that mean it can't also have critical value? This same discussion pops up in Oscar nominations, with the joke being that few people actually see the Best Picture nominees. But this year Top Gun: Maverick, one of the biggest box office success of 2022, was nominated. Who's to say what books are worth reading, what movies or plays are worth seeing? This Book Club has just as many inspirational discussions and moments from the "drivel" as it does from the "literature," and isn't that what matters? This play celebrates the love of reading, and maybe asks us not to take it so seriously.

Grab a glass of wine, or TRP's non-alcoholic specialty cocktail The Bookmark, and join this Book Club meeting play for some funny, uncomfortable, relatable discussions about books, art, and humanity. Click here for information and tickets, and don't wait too long, some performances are already starting to sell out.

*See more of Karen Zacarías when DalekoArts presents her equally hilarious and perhaps a bit more bitingly relevant play Native Gardens, opening February 10.


Join me and my fellow Twin Cities Theater Bloggers for a special event at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres! Get $20 off the ticket price for the March 4 matinee performance of the regional premiere of the super fun and heart-warming musical THE PROM, and stick around after the show for a talk-back with some of the cast. Find more info in the Facebook event here, and purchase discount tickets using code TCTB1 or by clicking on this link (discount valid for March 4 1pm performance only).