For a fleeting instant, you grasp the potential in the new, extensively rewritten version of playwright Karen Zacarías’s comedy of modern literary manners, “The Book Club Play.” The merry little band of readers is arrayed on tasteful chairs and sofas in the home of Ana (Kate Eastwood Norris), the group’s pretentious, tightly wound leader, when collective terror strikes: The doorbell rings with a club wannabe, who has accepted a casual invitation from a member who has not forewarned the others.
The horrified reaction is akin to news that a colony of bats has been let loose in the living room. “He could be an ax murderer for all we know!” one of the more frantic members cries. In the concept of a cozy sanctuary suddenly under siege, you get an authentically amusing immersion in intimate group dynamics, one that’s otherwise missing from a play that instead comes to feel falsely and tediously broad.
Arena Stage and its artistic director, Molly Smith, have taken Zacarías under their wings in their inaugural class of resident dramatists, supported by a million-dollar grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. For the playwrights’ initial offering, Arena chose this project, a revision of a piece originally mounted by Round House Theatre in 2008. It’s a commendable endeavor, providing a salary and production assistance and even health insurance to Zacarías, one of a group of Arena writers dedicated to the future of the stage.
Reworking the social-comedy antics of “The Book Club Play” seemed a plausible assignment, as the work’s attempt to take the starch out of a homespun American institution — made an even juicier target by its popularization on “Oprah” — conferred on it the potential to speak to a large audience.
Judging, too, from the reflexive laughs Smith’s serviceable production elicits in Arena’s third space, the Kogod Cradle, one can appreciate Zacarías’s skill at pushing the many plot-complication buttons familiar from overuse on television.
You do wish, however, that the playwright had placed more emphasis on fleshing out her characters than on re-oiling the evening’s chaotic mechanics. The book club members are sketched here in the watercolor strokes of farce, when what’s called for is the sharper penmanship of satire. The characters are too easily summed up in a single adjective — Ana, anal; Rob, frustrated; Jen, lonely; Will, prissy — to be regarded as anything more than fractional ideas of human beings. And are we not, after two hours in Ana’s comfortably appointed living room, supposed to have developed a kinship with any of them?
The members are a Column A/Column B assortment, a la “The Breakfast Club”; for diversity’s sake, there’s one black member, Lily (the radiant Rachael Holmes, an actress who seems to turn up in each production newly minted), and another who is not fully conscious of his sexual identity. Tom Story’s Will — single at 40, fastidious about his wardrobe, devoted to musicals and a tad effeminate — indignantly insists (for a while, anyway) that he’s not gay. Oh, that’s a new one. When is the Society to Eradicate Tired American Stereotypes ever going to step in?
Zacarías has altered some of the characters: Jen (Ashlie Atkinson) was previously an overshadowed Harvard classmate of Ana’s (pronounced AHH-nah) and is now a sad-sack paralegal. She has also refined the evening’s framing device, that this book club’s twice-monthly meetings have been chosen as the subject of a documentary, now under the auspices of an internationally renowned filmmaker. The audience’s perspective is that of the robot camera lens and, periodically, the actors break the unseen documentarian’s rule and gaze out at us, embarrassed by what is being revealed.
What, one wonders, did they expect? Between the club’s increasingly fractious meetings, snippets of the documentary’s other talking heads appear onscreen behind Donald Eastman’s attractive contemporary set, to comment on American reading habits. Those habits are dramatized in the club sessions, each announced with a projection of the title under discussion, from “Moby-Dick” to “Twilight.”
Although the enveloping magic of the act of reading is evoked in the characters’ reactions — Ana’s husband, Rob (Eric M. Messner), for instance, has an epiphany after digesting the domestic torpor in Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” — “The Book Club Play” puts its central conceit to less than invigorating use.
Aside from an argument about the relative value of popular novels versus literature, the discussions of the books go almost nowhere. One could imagine people of varying backgrounds and experience finding more entertainingly passive-aggressive ways to use the books to antagonize, enlighten and undermine their fellow clubgoers.
The actors ably fill the characters’ well-worn dramatic shoes. More concretely, costume designer Linda Cho has an eye for the style of these literary enthusiasts, particularly for self-dramatizing Ana and trendy Lily. As a sign of the social fashion of our times, however, “The Book Club Play” comes across as mere window-dressing.
By Karen Zacarías. Directed by Molly Smith. Set, Donald Eastman; costumes, Linda Cho; lighting, Nancy Schertler; sound, Cricket S. Myers; projections, Adam Larsen; dramaturg, Jocelyn Clarke. With Fred Arsenault. About two hours. Through Nov. 6 at Arena Stage, 1011 6th St. SW. Visit www.arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.