NC Stage’s production of The Book Club Play attempts to walk a fine line, displaying the transformative power of reading, all the while not being as pretentious, stodgy or boring as that premise might sound. It helps that the story, written by Karen Zacarias, is mostly played for laughs and never lets the proceedings get too heavy. In many ways, Book Club moves and feels like a sitcom, with its cast of diverse, distinct characters, its centralized setting inside a posh apartment and the fast pace in which the one-liners fly. But despite references that span hundreds of years of literature, it’s this easily digestible and familiar comedic style — along with a game cast with choice comic timing — that makes Book Club such a crowd pleaser.
The plot follows the exploits of a surprisingly and sneakily dysfunctional book club, led by the controlling Ana (Jennifer Gatti), a newspaper columnist who perhaps overjudges the social importance of the group she claims as her creation (she points out, for instance, that her book club started well before Oprah’s). Included in the club is her husband, Rob (Bill Munoz), representing your everyman, since he never reads the books and only shows up for the snacks. Then there’s their old college friend Will (Mark Allen Woodard), the pretentious bibliophile; Lily, the young newcomer who’s brags about saving trees by using an e-reader; and Jen (Stephanie O’Rear), a young professional looking for love in all the wrong places. While each character is easily identifiable and relatable, the point of the play is for them to gradually grow beyond just simple types, even if that means friendships get rumpled along the way. The play itself describes the club as “Lord of the Flies with wine and dip,” which should tell you a bit about where the interpersonal dynamics of the group end up.
Of course, the plot is pushed forward by literature, with the scenes divided among book club meetings. While there’s talk of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and James Joyce’s Ulysses (used more as an astute running gag about how no one actually wants to read it, despite its esteemed reputation), Book Club never gets too esoteric. The play hits its stride around the midway point, when the character Alex (Catori Swann) shows up. He’s a comparative-literature professor battling both a nasty breakup and an existential crisis, all the while raising some interesting questions on the nature of literature, and the popularity of Twilight or Harry Potter and the tendency to dismiss them because of their huge success. As characters find themselves through unexpected pieces of writing, Book Club’s point, beyond simple entertainment value, revolves around the importance of reading as well as the story, no matter where it comes from.
The play is surprisingly cinematic — at least in certain affectations — the way it’s staged, with the pop music soundtrack that accompanies the opening and the intertitles that are occasionally projected over the proceedings, making everything feel very up-to-date. There’s also the strange conceit that the play is actually being remotely filmed by a famous European documentarian, a device that never quite works and adds little to the plot beyond setting up a handful of gags, though within the irreverent tone of the play, it’s not a huge drawback. Ultimately, Book Club moves at such a pace that missteps in the script are never allowed to linger, making for a modern, entertaining production.
— Justin Souther writes film reviews for Mountain Xpress.
what: The Book Club Play
where: NC Stage
when: Through Sunday, Nov. 17. Wednesdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m.
$16-$28 with $10 student tickets. Friday, Nov. 8 tickets include a pre-show glass of wine and a post-show discussion with Malaprop’s staff.