Book clubs probably comes in all shapes, sizes, and tastes. But the stereotype is that snooty people get together to read heavy classics of hundreds of pages. Karen Zacarías, a nationally known and produced playwright, chooses to skewer just such an elitist book club to explore the idea of classic versus popular culture.
The Book Club Play, now at Village Theatre, pinpricks a lot of very current cultural tropes and pitfalls, as many of her plays do. She likes to play with racial and class stereotyping with an eye to bring it up in a way that allows us to laugh a little while we explore our internal responses. Here, she brings us Ana’s book club (Marquicia Dominguez) and shows us what happens when it’s suddenly forced to change.
Ana and her friend Will (Richard Nguyen Sloniker) started the book club with all those snooty intentions. Ana’s husband, Rob (Nik Doner), thinks book club is just to visit and eat, but friend Jen (Lauren Paris) and co-worker Lily (Maya Burton) feel like book club is super important to them.
Why is book club so important to them? Ana announces to the group that a famous documentarian has decided to video their book club for a documentary on that very theme. Ana claims that just because there’s a videographer’s camera trained on their every move, nothing is going to change the flavor of their book club.
Lily is the youngest member and the “hippest” and most culturally aware. Her Gaydar tells her that Will is gay, but then she’s assured that Will is actually Ana’s first boyfriend, one of the awkward moments in their conversations.
Suddenly, the unexpected arrives. Jen had offhandedly invited a “guy in her building” to come to book club. Ana is completely offended, but Alex (Arlando Smith) arrives and it’s too rude to make him go away for this one night. That is until her book club revolts and votes to have Alex join them permanently.
Alex is a professor of comparative literature. You’d think that a man of his accomplishments would fit in perfectly. But Alex has lost his spark for classic literature. His ex-fiancée has left him at the alter because he had not read Twilight! So he’s determined to explore it and invites the book club participants to read it, too.
So popular fiction, read by millions, invades this enclave of sophisticated literature and shakes everything upside down and sideways. Zacarías is a great writer of dialogue and she makes this ride fun. A quibble with the script is that when she rides up to the edge of controversy or confrontation, she immediately pulls back in this. Her play, Native Gardens, challenges a bit more satisfactorily. She’s good at it and I wished for a bit more.
The cast is great fun. I had not seen Lauren Paris before, but she definitely impressed with her comic timing. Maya Burton was delightful and has the cutest little giggle ever. It was nice to see Nik Doner’s range and ability to go from silly to more self-aware. Arlando Smith made me believe his cerebral change of heart, Richard Sloniker had a fun transition to make, and Marquicia Dominguez displayed a solid aura of command and snottiness.
A couple of quibbles with the production were that I didn’t think it needed an intermission; the videos were hard to hear in the cavernous theater and should have been captioned; and it was an unfortunate choice to underscore when books were read aloud, because the music competed with what should have been crystal clear words.
A very nice tiny touch was entrances that nodded to the pandemic, where people simply came in with masks and noted negative testing. The play was written before all this, but this made it feel very contemporary in a very elegant way.