I’ve never belonged to a book club, and nothing about Karen Zacarias’ play inspires me to join one. But I wouldn’t mind seeing it again.
Swine Palace’s production of “The Book Club Play,” which runs through May 3 at the Reilly Theatre, packs a lot of laughter, cleverness and a smidgen of poignancy and cultural insight into less than two fast-moving hours. George Judy directs.
Not that the club that meets in Ana and Rob’s living room is typical. Perhaps it once was, because a famed Danish filmmaker has chosen it for a documentary about the phenomenon of American book clubs. A globe containing a camera sits in the living room, turning on automatically every two weeks at the time the book club begins.
Of course, anyone who has ever been around a TV camera knows how its presence alters the reality it is there to record. It is almost impossible to act naturally when you know you’re on camera, and, inevitably, that’s what happens at this book club — until the members eventually forget it’s there.
Then, they wish it wasn’t. The books do what literature is supposed to do — reach deep inside the reader. The results are unexpected.
Ana (played with great energy by Addie Barnhart) is anal, pretentious and controlling, an editor and Friday columnist at the local newspaper who is married to a nearly polar opposite. Rob (Colton Neidhardt) is an ex-jock who participates in the club even though he can hardly bring himself to read any of the books, even when it’s one he suggests. Rob’s laid-back attitude exasperates his tightly wound wife, but everyone else seems to accept him for who he is.
That includes foppish Will (Anthony McMurray), who dated Ana in college before Rob stole her heart, but remains friends with them both. Though he denies it and his college friends accept him at his word, Will is obviously gay, which McMurray makes clear with mannerisms that stop just short of setting the area rug on fire, yet somehow manages not to seem over the top. That’s quite the delicate balance.
Jen (Maggie McGurn) is another longtime club member, a bundle of aching loneliness who searches in vain for her Heathcliff, the romantic hero of “Wuthering Heights.” Being introduced to the club is Lily (Hart Adams), one of Ana’s recently hired subordinates at the newspaper. A single African-American woman who has moved from Akron, Ohio, Lily is played with winsome vivaciousness by Adams.
Things quickly depart from Ana’s plans for high-brow discussions of classic literature, with Lily suggesting homoerotic interpretations of “Moby-Dick,” Jen revealing a scandalous secret and Rob surprisingly examining his life in the light of “Age of Innocence.” But when Jen casually invites Alex (Tim Moriarty), a professor of comparative literature who was recently jilted, the club completely goes off the rails. Moriarty brings great intensity to his role as a catalyst to everyone else’s self-discovery.
Amanda Clark also deserves credit for a variety of characters — literary agent, Wal-Mart manager, Secret Service agent, to name three — who provide humorous interludes as the scenes change.
“The Book Club Play” manages to touch on serious personal issues without ever losing a light touch. It’s well worth seeing.