REVIEW: “The Book Club Play” at Hubbard Hall

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Also read J. Peter Bergman’s review on Berkshire Bright Focus

I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of my winter down-time reading. Books – tangible, virtual, and audio – provide satisfying and very inexpensive entertainment. Sharing them with friends is an added joy and having an excuse to gather together for food and friendship makes belonging to Book Clubs a popular pastime.

Of course such gathering are not just about books, they also reflect the character and social milieu of the participants. Confined as they often are to a single setting with a relatively small cast of characters, it is not surprising that a playwright took her own personal Book Club experience and translated it to the stage.

The Book Club Play had its world premiere in 2008 at the Berkshire Theatre Group. Since then it has gone on to become playwright Karen Zacarías’ most produced work. Through Zacarías’ working relationship and friendship with Hubbard Hall’s Artistic Director David Snider , it has found its way to the Freight Depot Theatre at Hubbard Hall as a delightful winter time treat.

The sold-out preview audience with whom I attended the show had a wonderful time. Andrea Nice’s beautiful, realistic set depicting the immaculate and oh-so-tasteful living room of Rob and Ana Smith’s home takes up a sizable portion of the Freight Depot space, bringing the action and the audience in close proximity. Director Kirk Jackson has a flair for comedy and he has assembled a generally strong cast who energetically mine Zacarías’ for all its laughs.

So if you go, and I hope you will, you will be treated to a top notch production of a decidedly mediocre script. There is way too much that is predictable in Zacarías’ plot, and when she goes for a shocking plot twist, which she does way too late and to hastily, it rings hollow. Jackson and his actors make the five, and then six, members of Ana’s Book Club vividly real and endearing, so you are acutely aware of when the playwright lets them down. On the other hand there are no minor characters. Each gets her/his own story arc and catharsis, which makes for a busy two-hours of stage time.

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The relationships between Ana (Megan Demarest), her husband Rob (Wade Simpson) and their old college friend Will (Oliver Wadsworth) form the heart of “The Book Club Play.”

Ana (Megan Demarest) -who pronounces her name like the word Honor without the R -her jock husband Rob (Wade Simpson), who had dreams of becoming a primatologist and has ended up as a pharmaceutical salesman, and Will (Oliver Wadsworth), a fastidious museum curator, have been friends since college days when Rob and Will were roommates and romantic rivals for Ana, who is now a successful newspaper columnist. Ana and Will frequently spar over whose idea it was to start the Book Club, but there is no doubt that the bossy and controlling Ana OWNS it.

Joining them in Ana’s living room for monthly meetings are Jen (Erin Ouellette), a woman who has lost her creative spark and sense of self after a disastrous affair with a married politician (think Monica Lewinsky), and Lily (Lia Russell-Self), a young woman newly arrived in the community and an underling of Ana’s at the paper. Lily is also black. At the start I had hopes that Jackson had cast Russell-Self because she is a fine actress, but no, Zacarías wrote the role as a token black character, with all the predictable awkward gaffs from the unwoke white folks.

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Lily (Lia Russell-Self) and Alex (Morgan Morse) are the younger and more culturally adventurous members of the Book Club.

At the end of the first half – the play is structured in six scenes with brief monologues from the Pundits (all Catherine Seeley) in between – Jen invites a new member to a Club meeting. Alex (Morgan Morse) is a young academic hoping for tenure as a Professor of Comparative Literature, who challenges Ana’s tightly held concepts of class and culture.

The gimmick, established at the start of the play, is that these meetings are being taped by a prestigious, and unseen, Scandinavian documentary filmmaker. These people are performing for an audience, but in the heat of several moments they forget that the silent and unobtrusive camera is there and reveal secrets they had not intended to share outside of Book Club.

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Will (Oliver Wadsworth), Lily (Lia Russell-Self), Ana (Megan Demarest), and Rob (Wade Simpson) mug for the camera.

This gimmick allows for a lot of mugging, which renders the acting stagey and detracts from the characterizations while adding to the laughs. It is a delicately balanced trade-off and one that Jackson and the cast generally succeed in navigating.

Stand-outs in the cast are Wadsworth’s well-crafted portrayal of Will and Ouellette’s subtle incarnation of Jen. The weakest links are Demarest’s overbearing and endlessly posing Ana and Simpson’s flaccid Will. and their relationship is at the core of the play. Thankfully Wadsworth breathes life into this complicated triumvirate at several crucial moments.

As I mentioned, Russell-Self is saddled with a token character, but she is a strong and lively actress and she makes Lily an engaging member of the ensemble. Alex is an obvious catalyst character, brought in just before intermission to Create Conflict and generate a truly exciting first act curtain, which Zacarías then fails to follow through on when the curtain rises again; but again Morse’s energy prevails and elevates Alex above his utility as a plot device.

As the interstitial Pundits, Seeley gets to play six distinctly different characters – from an elderly sky-diving librarian to a Wal-Mart clerk with a penchant for Nabokov to an inmate charged with managing the prison library. Again, the seams in Zacarías’ playwriting are obvious since these monologues clearly exist to allow the cast time to change costumes ( the costumes, by Richard MacPike, are generally very good) but they also permit Zacarías to speak clearly about books.

Books are a uniquely human creation, stemming directly from our innate desire to tell and preserve our stories. Much as I enjoy e-books and audiobooks, I am sure that in 100 years those technologies will be obsolete, while the books on my shelves will remain accessible forms of entertainment and enlightenment. Zacarías touches on the creation of books, their precarious economy, and how they reach out across time and culture to touch use individually and corporately in different ways at different times. Case in point the recent explosion in sales of Orwell’s 1984.

Cambridge, NY, is blessed to have a really wonderful independent bookstore, Battenkill Books, which has partnered with the Hall to make this production a true community experience. At the back of the program the store has filled an interesting three pages drawing parallels between the works of fiction discussed on stage and plays of the same ilk, as well as a bibliography of  Zacarías’ other works. If you don’t live in or near Cambridge, I encourage you to stop into Battenkill Books and remind yourself of how exhilarating and comforting a REAL bookstore can be.

Hubbard Hall presents The Book Club Play by Karen Zacarías, directed by Kirk Jackson. Technical Director: Benjie White. Scenic Design: Andrea Nice. Costume Designer: Richard MacPike; Lighting and Projections Designer: Calvin Anderson. Stage Manager: Kate Johnson. Dramaturg: Sam Levit.

Cast: Megan Demarest as Ana; Wade Simpson as Rob; Morgan Morse as Alex; Oliver Wadsworth as Will; Erin Ouellette as Jen; Lia Russell-Self as Lily; and Catherine Seeley as the Pundit.

The Book Club Play runs March 4-19, 2017, in the Freight Depot Theatre at Hubbard Hall, 25 East Main Street in Cambridge, NY. Performances Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 2 & 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets are $25 General Admission/$10 Student. Members of a local book club can call in to the box office to save $5 on General Admission. All tickets are available online at hubbardhall.org or by calling the box office at 518-677-2495 Tuesdays and Thursdays 10am to 5pm or Wednesdays and Fridays 11am to 4pm; performance tickets are also available at-the-door if the show is not sold out.

Post-Show talkbacks will be available and open to any audience member following the 2 pm Saturday matinees on March 11 and 18.

bookclubplaypressposterA part of the community for 25 years (under a few different names), Battenkill Books is a local, independent bookstore selling general interest, new books in the Battenkill Valley. The store offers a broad range of books from current bestsellers to the classics, history and romance to gardening and cooking, and also has a large selection of books on local history and the surrounding area. Battenkill Books carries maps, gifts, cards, and an eclectic selection of magazines.  Battenkill Books is located at 15 East Main St. in Cambridge, New York and can be reached by calling 518-677-2515. Or visit online at battenkillbooks.com.

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