Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Theater review: Charming 'The Book Club Play' cracks open its characters

Andrew J. Friedenthal, special to the American-Statesman
Different Stages takes on "The Book Club Play," a hilarious look at the drama that occurs between a group of friends in a book club. [Contributed by Bret Brookshire]

Book clubs have become an increasingly popular American phenomenon, and in Karen Zacarías’ fittingly titled “The Book Club Play,” the nature of those clubs gets a loving, satirical send-up. Different Stages’ new mounting of the play, running through April 13 at the Santa Cruz Theatre, is a sweet-natured, charming production with moments of true hilarity that serves as an ode to the transformative power of books.

“The Book Club Play” revolves around one particular gathering, headed by the tightly-wound Ana Smith, that has been chosen as the subject of a documentary by a world-renowned filmmaker. The play itself is meant to be the final film product, a mounted camera’s-eye view of several meetings of the club, complete with interstitial interviews with other colorful characters involved in their own book clubs. As might be expected, secrets are revealed and relationships changed over the course of these various meetings, with both dramatic and comedic results.

Different Stages’ production of the text is somewhat tonally uneven when it comes to this tension between the drama and the comedy. Though the text seems largely focused on comedic potential, at times it feels like director Nikki Zook is leading us toward heartbreak rather than hilarity. Nonetheless, the play does ultimately give us the resolution and relief of laughter, thanks in no small part to very talented cast members who know where and how to mine for humor.

Zook’s direction excels in making sure that each member of the cast is always aware that they’re playing multiple roles in every moment — they are not only inhabiting their unique characters but also modulating their performances through the context of playing to a camera and attempting to present an artificial persona in the documentary.

Kelsey Mazak (as Ana), Will Douglas (as William) and Hayley Armstrong (as Lily) portray the most “intellectual” characters, and thus add a layer of reflexive performance on top of their initial portrayals, which is in stark contrast to the more natural, accessible personalities portrayed by Makayla Perez (as Jennie) and Beau Paul (as Rob). As the play goes on and we see those layered personas peel away (particularly thanks to the introduction of Michael Galvan as new book club member and comparative literature professor Alex), we slowly gain access to even the more self-conscious characters, and the initial patina of stodginess gives way to an inherently sweet goofiness that’s at the core of the story.

Though it flirts with some potentially darker moments, “The Book Club Play” is light fare, an affectionate send-up of a cultural institution that, in the end, provides a deeply passionate argument about the power of books (both “literary” and “popular”) to change our lives, particularly when we share those books with the people we love.