Jewel goes for zany comedy in ‘The Book Club Play’
By Joanne Engelhardt

Most people are either in a book club, are related to someone who is – or at least know someone who’s in one. They’re the ones who, without overtly trying, make the rest of us feel illiterate because we manage to read a grand total of between three and 10 books a year (depending on which “national average in the U.S.” you want to believe).

Nevertheless, the universal appeal of “The Book Club Play,” Karen Zacarias’s zany little 2008 play, makes it a welcome addition to Jewel Theatre Company’s 2016-17 line-up after its last two serious dramas, “A Streetcar Names Desire” and “Next to Normal.”

But the framework of the play sometimes gets in the way of the story, which is just as interesting whether or not the entire thing is being filmed by a never-seen Norwegian documentary director named Lars. If Zacarias’s idea is that people behave differently when they’re on camera, her play disproves this theory because these people are only self-conscious when they remember they’re on camera.

Most of the time they’re just behaving badly and don’t remember that it’s all been caught on film.

Jewel’s cast of six delightfully inventive actors bring so much joy, verve and je ne sais quoi to their roles that the result is a fun, lightweight evening of theater.

First there’s Ana, the control freak who claims – about three dozen times – that the book club is “her” book club, an assertion that sticks in the craw of Will, a closeted, uptight longtime friend who frequently pouts “It’s my book club, too.” Then there’s newcomer Lily, recently transplanted from Akron, Ohio, who works with Ana on a newspaper and is clearly (according to Ana) on her way up.

The five-member book club also includes Rob, Ana’s husband, an easygoing guy who just loves to be around the group and seldom reads the books (although sometimes he admits to watching a movie of the book), and Jen, a skittish, forgetful woman prone to periods of self-doubt but a genuine lover of books.

Into this fray bursts Alex, a professor of comparative literature who Jen meets in her apartment’s laundry room, notices he’s reading the book the club is reading right then, and impulsively invites him to come to the book discussion.

Ohhhhh, bad move on Jen’s part.

This so incenses Ana that she throws scathing remarks Alex’s way from the moment he walks in.

But Alex is like Teflon: None of it seems to stick.

In fact, he apparently thinks everyone is interested in his viewpoint, so he just keeps giving his opinion as Ana simultaneously has a total mental and physical meltdown.
Really? Are book clubs actually this messed up?

It doesn’t really matter because, like a true television sitcom, everything works out in the end.

Spoiler alert: No more book club.

Director Kirsten Brandt does her best to juice up this production which sometimes suffers from the odd “video shorts” that cast members do (maybe to give the rest of the cast time to change clothes). Kate Edmunds’s terrific set adds immensely, as do B. Modern’s costumes, the lighting, sound and a fantastic array of props – like the shiny Chinese red lacquer vase — from Shaun Carroll.

Still, the play would be nothing without the mesmerizing performances of actors Stephen Muterspaugh as the outlandish, but charming Alex; Geoff (Jeffrey) Fiorito as the sexually unawakened, hilariously fastidious Will; and Maryssa Wanlass as the overly protective book club “owner” who is constantly searching for ... something.

These three are ably supported by Brent Schindele as the amiable, slyly sexy Rob; Sierra Jolene as the shy, book-loving Jen (“I like them better than people,” she pronounces); and Tristan Cunningham as Lily, who holds a summa cum laude degree from Kenyon College but recognizes that she is a minority of one in this club.

(At one point she gets Ana to realize that so far the only authors the book club members have read are “dead white men.”) Zacarias has a gift for pithy play dialogue which keeps the audience laughing. At one point Ana tells Jen (who apparently has depression but now wants to have a baby): “Prozac helps with your depression but it won’t change the diaper.” Later, after Alex begins to know the other book club members, he asks acerbically, “Is ‘intensely annoying’ a prerequisite for book club?” Later one of the members opines “Book club is like ‘Lord of the Flies’ with wine and dips.”

But that trite ending to tidy up all the loose ends? Not necessary (or particularly believable).

It’s likely book club members will get a kick out of this play, as will their spouses who may begin to think they’ve been missing out on something. And those of us who would love to be in a book club – if only we had the time to read more books – will enjoy it as well. It’s certainly not very deep (unlike some of the books mentioned in the play).

But it likely will keep you chuckling enough to enjoy a night of escapist theater.

Jewel Theatre’s production of ‘The Book Club Play’ features (from left) Sierra Jolene, Geoff (Jeffrey) Fiorito, Tristan Cunningham, Brent Schindele (Standing), and Stephen Muterspaugh.