The Book Club illustrates the value of community

by Hugh Hunter
Posted 9/28/23

A hit comedy in its day, it has taken on an extended shelf life in community theaters because of the many cameo moments it offers actors, and the special way it celebrates community.

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The Book Club illustrates the value of community


Old Academy Players presents The Book Club Play (2008) by Mexican-born playwright Karen Zacarias. A hit comedy in its day, it has taken on an extended shelf life in community theaters because of the many cameo moments it offers actors, and the special way it celebrates community.

The main character, Anna, takes a proprietary interest in the book club.  Her ambition leads her to engage a famous Danish documentary director to film the proceedings. As Anna, Kristen Spangenberg plays a highbrow woman whose domineering drive comically undermines the group she founded.

Anna urges everyone not to be starstruck or stare directly at the overhead camera. Club members comply and the filming does not appear to affect their behavior. Then to the dismay of all, it does capture their reality, and this is more than anyone can easily handle.

Rob is Anna's husband, a former college quarterback whose star has dimmed. He loads up on the free food and rarely reads the books. Dayton Williams plays a phlegmatic man who has to be shocked into action. (A weak point of Zacarias' script is that Anna and Rob are an improbable pair. What do they have in common? What brought them together? Where are they going?)

Kyle Mitchell plays Will. He was Anna's first boyfriend and a college friend of Rob. A museum curator, Will is a literary highbrow himself, but Anna believes Will only belongs to the book club because he is still in love with her. Anna (and Will) are in for a surprise.

Emmie Ledesma plays Jen, a paralegal. Jen is a randy lass who was run off her last job after she took up with a married politician. Ledesma assumes the aura of a person worn down by scandal. She appears to need the book club for its non-threatening camaraderie, and because of its succor, she grows more powerful. 

The club has just these four members until Jen introduces Lily. Alyssia Sims plays an effervescent African-American, whom Anna greets with enthusiasm because it enhances the club's "diversity" which is good for the documentary. 

Lilly surprises: instead of suggesting someone like Ralph Ellison, she recommends Twilight. Club founders Anna and Will are appalled because they want to read classics; other members are into potboilers. But in surprising comic twists, Will is transformed when he reads The DaVinci Code, while lowbrow Rob is literally floored by The Age of Innocence.

There are six scenes in the play. Director Norman G. Burnosky Jr. retains the five monologues by "Pundit" wedged between them; it is odd dramaturgy, but it papers over Zacarias' jerky narrative. 

Dressed in her own costumes, Marisa Block is joyous as "Pundit" and lots of fun to watch in a succession of characters with quirky relationships to books --- a prison librarian and a secret agent with a liking for Hemingway, among others.

The introduction of Alex, played by CJ Musial, ramps up the schism in relationships based on book preferences.  A professor of comparative literature who was dumped by his fiancee, Lily discovers him at the laundry reading Twilight. When she introduces him to the club the fireworks begin. 

A bit slow-moving at the start, The Book Club Play gathers momentum. It is mostly a comedy and the Old Academy production aims to make you laugh at its perky ironies. Yet it has a serious aspect: There are jabs at the mockumentary genre; it questions the transformative value of different kinds of books. (By extension, what is the relative value of mega-hit pulp movies versus the Oscar winners few attend?)

I was still more impressed by the book club as a metaphor for the transformative power of community involvement. These characters come to know themselves only through their active membership in the club. The Book Club Play suggests the knowledge of self that one acquires through such community interactions may be unsettling, but it is the best way to become authentic.

Old Academy Players is located at 3540 Indian Queen Lane. The Book Club Play will run through 1 October. Tickets available at 215-843-1109.