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A CurtainUp DC Review
The Book Club Play

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Just remember, Lily. The real story is never the plot. Itís what happens between the lines.— Lily
Heathcliff. What an asshole.
Jen
Book Club Play
Ashlie Atkinson as Jen
First performed, to a decidedly lukewarm press at Washington's Round House Theatre and, in 2008, at the Berkshire Summer Festival, The Book Club Play by Washington-based playwright Karen Zacarias, just added a new chapter. The original characters remain as do some of the conflicts inherent in a book club but the script, according to director Molly Smith, is new.

Instead of a play-within-a-play, Zacarias has placed her characters in a documentary about a book club, vignettes from which are intermittently rear-screened above the stage. The self-centered, narcissistic Ana, a journalist and would-be-novelist, has agreed unilaterally to letting a Danish documentary film maker keep his camera rolling (do digital cameras roll? probably not.) It cannot be turned off. Like Big Brother in 1984, it is ever-present recording the confessions each character makes during the course of their meetings. Inexplicably, but humorously, other characters (such as the Wal-Mart guy and a Former Secret Service Agent) also take part in the documentary.

Along with jokes about Moby Dick, Charlotte's Web, The Age of Innocence and many other "classics," Zacarias throws in plenty of references to potboilers, New York Times bestsellers and a favorite of many adult males wishing to bring back the thrills of their youth, Tarzan. The DaVinci Code proves to be a life-altering experience for some of the play's characters.

Central to all the action and most of the jokes is Ana, played superbly by Kate Eastwood Norris, showing enormous presence and great range. Her other appearances in Washington include a chilling Lady Macbeth at the Folger. Ana has brought into the group Lily, a young, hip writer, played by the young, hip, gorgeous and sharply dressed (by costume designer Linda Cho) Rachael Holmes. Her timing and wide-eyed asides are impeccable.

Ashlie Atkinson, is very funny as Jen, the disheveled future lawyer who looks a mess, has not quite finished the book by the time book club meets, could use some romance and has a tendency to lose her keys. But where this new-to-Washington actress really excels is in the documentary where she plays a tough-talking prison warden.

As Will, Tom Story plays the persnickety museum curator, a gay whose hesitant exit from the closet is followed by leaps around the stage that the audience enjoyed. But Story has done this before, in other plays at other theaters. Fred Arsenault is quite believable as the Comp Lit professor whose profession is juxtaposed with his taste in reading but Eric Messner as Rob, Ana's husband who never reads the book, lacks credibility. His performance is flat while the rest of the cast has a lot of fun, as does the audience.

Although the jokes wear thin in the second act, The Book Club Play is to theater what a lowbrow page turner is to literature. It is like a sugar high that comes not from Pinot Grigio but a candy bar with nuts.

To read Elyse Sommer's review of the 2008 Berkshire Theater Festival production go here.

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The Book Club Play
By Karen Zacarias
Directed by Molly Smith
Cast: Fred Arsenault (Alex/ Wal-Mart Guy); Ashlie Atkinson (Jen/Candy); Rachael Holmes (Lily/Librarian/ Sky Diver); Eric Messner (Rob/Shark Bite Survivor); Kate Eastwood Norris (Ana/Jaded Literary Agent); Tom Story (Will/Former Secret Service Agent.)
Set Designer: Donald Eastman; Costume Designer: Linda Cho; Lighting Designer: Nancy Schertler; Projection Designer: Adam Larsen.
Running time: two hours, one intermission.
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SW; Washington, DC; 202-488-3300; www.arenastage.org.
Tickets: $45-$85.
From October 7 to November 6, 2011.
Review by Susan Davidson based on October 13, 2011 performance.

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