Sometimes the most incredible stories are not the ones between the covers of novels that members of book clubs devour and dissect in communities across America. Sometimes they’re within the club itself. At least that’s what Karen Zacarias presents in her out-of-control comedy which is getting its second professional go-round in the Massachusetts Berkshires. Clearly, Zacarias is a writer of comedic skill but her much-in-development play lacks focus and a clear tone as it veers from social satire to sitcom snap and sentiment to Durang-like derangement — and back again. Sitcomland is where this play feels most at home.
Play begins as an easy-going comedy of contemporary manners as it follows a home-based book club and its self-analytical members. The group was co-created by closeted neat-freak Will (Tom Story) and his old college girlfriend, the controlling Ana (Keira Naughton), a newspaper op-ed columnist who describes herself as “bubbly but with direction.”
At first, the club has just two other members: Ana’s husband Rob (C.J. Wilson), who is more interested in the snacks than the lit, and Ana’s best friend, shy Jen (Anne Louise Zachry), who writes obits for weekly newspapers.
Lily (Cherise Boothe), a young African-American who works with Ana, joins the group and brings a sense of normalcy to the club, only slightly upsetting Ana’s well-ordered universe. But that’s nothing compared to the arrival of Jen’s potential new boyfriend Alex (Bhavesh Patel), a firecracker of a personality who takes over the club — and the play — with charming, irritating lunacy.
Zacarias uses the device of a college thesis documentary on book clubs to simplify exposition and to intersperse the scenes with a series of short mocumentary monologues by experts/pundits, such as a radio commentator, a literary agent or a texting co-ed (all played with verve and nerve by Sarah Marshall).
The mocumentary structure, however, isn’t integrated well into the script, and the comic riffs have little connection to the play. By the second act, the hidden camera premise is almost pointless.
Things turn farcical when talk of “The Age of Innocence” turns not-so innocent and then darker as Ana takes desperate measures to regain control . Second act takes a while to recover from the new developments as the play’s shifting tone shifts again several more times, not quite deciding if it wants to evoke a Christopher Guest film or something more hype-ventilated. It usually opts for the latter as the plot becomes increasingly stretched and strained.
Nonetheless, there are some sizable laughs along the way, and there are a kazillion book clubs out there, so the market could prove ripe.
Helmed by Nick Olcott, the actors make the most of whatever comes their way. Naughton does well as the queen bee who sees herself as the mother hen — but there’s little sympathy for the pretentious manipulator writ large on stage. However, on a sitcom universe this character could live on quite nicely.
That’s also true for most of the stock characters, including Wilson’s lug of a hub, Story’s humorously repressed Will, Zachry’s neurotic Jen and Boothe’s sly Lily.
But, only Patel’s weird and lovable kook is a character unto himself . One could write a book — or play — about him.