Too Many Subplots Crowd This 'Book Club'

Jen (Connan Morrissey) and Ana (Lise Bruneau) are part of a reading circle, but their narrative spirals unchecked in Round House Theatre's
Jen (Connan Morrissey) and Ana (Lise Bruneau) are part of a reading circle, but their narrative spirals unchecked in Round House Theatre's "Book Club." (By Danisha Crosby -- Round House Theatre)
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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 14, 2008

The spirit is willing, but the plot is weak.

One is open to buying into the characters and overall premise of "The Book Club Play," the eager-to-please comedy receiving its world premiere at Round House Theatre. Playwright Karen Zacarias offers up a potentially juicy satire of progressive, upper-middle-class manners in her story of a tightly wound literary circle whose members adore books but cannot seem to read the handwriting on their own walls.

Rather than trusting the clash of tempestuous personalities to drive the funny business, however, Zacarias loads her play with gimmicky digressions and unnecessarily ludicrous mechanics. In regard to the latter, let's just say that as a result of its use in "The Book Club Play," the word "cancer" maintains its perfect record of never being a successful springboard for laughs.

Round House's impulse here -- giving time and space not only to a new work, but also to one by a Washington writer -- is wholly laudatory. And in a clever way, the evening's theme meshes with the mission of Round House's artistic director, Blake Robison, whose seasons in Bethesda are stocked with stage adaptations of modern and classic novels. On this occasion, the subject concerns the pleasure that reading itself can give, and how that simple joy is complicated and undercut when a book club's fragile group dynamic is altered.

The major problem with "The Book Club Play" is that it shifts into so many different gears that you're never made to feel that any one of them fills the center of a play. Zacar¿as's muddled conceit revolves around a documentary about a book club that is being shot over the period of a year by a group of unseen graduate students. (The evening begins with the film's opening credits, which are supposed to give the impression, one assumes, that the audience is actually watching the movie.)

From time to time, the focus shifts from the monthly meetings of the club to interviews with various outside commentators on American reading habits. All these male and female characters are played by Sarah Marshall, and though some of her transformations are diverting -- especially her impersonation of a quintessential New York literary agent -- they don't seem to have much to do with what's going on in the book club presided over by Lise Bruneau's Ana, a passive-aggressive control freak.

Ana's chief goal in life seems to be maintaining the sanctity of the club and her feeling of superiority over the other members: her overmatched husband, Rob (Jason Paul Field), who never bothers to read the assigned books; her best friend, Jen (Connan Morrissey), a Harvard grad nevertheless languishing eternally in Ana's shadow; and club co-founder Will (Sasha Olinick), who has what is supposed to be a surprising crush on another club member.

Not yet had your fill of exposition? Two new members (played by Erika Rose and Matthew Detmer) are enlisted to spice up the proceedings in ways both welcome and threatening to Ana. And then, after she senses she is indeed losing her viselike grip on the club, Ana propels herself -- as the grad students' camera rolls -- to the center of a drama that will convulse everyone.

It's this last credulity-straining twist that swallows up the second half of the play and any remaining patience one has for Zacarias's increasingly desperate efforts to wring out giggles.

James Kronzer's set of a contemporary living room gives the production a polished sheen, and the wall he designs behind it for JJ Kaczynski's projections is the most inventive element of the entire enterprise.

As directed by Nick Olcott, the cast sees to it that every attitude and every joke feels obvious. Rose, as a confident young newcomer to the club, fares best here; she brings a convincing solidity to a play with an array of rather weakly drawn personalities. Morrissey, too, offers an appealing turn as a woman who's managed to sublimate her disappointment over her own lack of achievement.

A wiser and more penetrating work might be buried in the contrived layers of "The Book Club Play," but finding it would take some serious excavation.

The Book Club Play, by Karen Zacar¿as. Directed by Nick Olcott. Costumes, Rosemary Pardee; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Matthew M. Nielson. About 2 hours 10 minutes. Through March 2 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East West Highway, Bethesda. Call 240-644-1100 or visit

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