Of the many things to love about 6th Street Playhouse’s “The Book Club Play,” three can be found in a message from the director, Jess Headington. She wants to create a situation where the audience can see the world from a different perspective. Through humor people can find, as the main character Ana obsessively seeks, “our better selves.” Discovery and new perspectives, especially while laughing, are the products of smart comedy.
Headington goes on to say that “Karen Zacarias’ characters are all terribly relatable, sometimes even painfully so.” All eleven of the characters in the play resemble ourselves and people that we know. Book clubs, bridge clubs, bunco groups, poker nights, are all variations of people gathering to hide behind their books or their cards. But facades breakdown, even more quickly when new elements are introduced.
And when a filmmaker chooses this certain book club to make a documentary, all of the characters become more stressed as their secret sides are revealed and recorded by the camera. “The Book Club Play” exposes the secret selves of the five original members and quickly lifts the curtain of the sixth and newest member, a professor of comparative literature.
Book lovers bask in the many ways books are inserted into the play. Before the play begins, books appear all over the set. On the back wall appears a woman dressed in a nineteenth century outfit reading comfortably on a fainting couch. A tall bookshelf filled with books appears in one corner of the room. Books are stacked on an end table and under a padded bench.
Then the woman on the fainting couch reading fades and a title takes its place: “The Book Club Documentary.” Ana (Maureen O’Neill), a bright woman who dominates the book club so much that she requires each meeting to be held in her own home, stage center in the spotlight, speaks directly to the camera as she reflects about the book club and its purpose. One after another the other four members tell why he or she belongs to the book club.
Ana, glassy-eyed and domineering, assumes the role of director within the play and within the book club. She plays to the camera as she maintains the appearance of orderliness and intelligence.
One woman, Jen (Heather Gibeson), doggedly works in the background trying to finish the last pages of “Moby Dick” while Lily, an African-American from Akron, Ohio (Brittany Nicole Sims), discusses the homoerotic passages, especially those about Ishmael and the cannibal. Then she implies that another member of the club, Will (John Browning), is gay.
Perfect timing for some exposition as characters reveal that Will and Ana and her husband Rob (Mark Assad) have a romantic history. Will and Rob, college roommates at a time when Ana dated Will, outline the shift of the love triangle. Lily apologizes for suggesting that Will was gay, and witty Will relieves the tension with a little joke, telling Lily that some of his best friends are Akron-Americans. Through all of this trite word play, Ana maintains her ideals, even though her husband is that one book club member who fails to do the reading.
The members reminisce about childhood books and after a few comments are made about “Sounder” and “Old Yeller,” the ironic jest dryly delivered to show the power of books follows: “It’s great that dead dogs can bring people together.”
And the documentary camera captures everything from secret kisses to not so subtle disagreements between club members.
One other device that adds to the fun, periodically five different characters played by five of the six book club members, deliver monologues to the camera about book related issues from a Secret Service Agent to a Walmart Employee somewhat like The Camera’s Eye used in John Dos Passos “USA.” The five actors face the challenge of creating another character and making some quick changes.
The sixth member of the book club, Alex (Eyan Dean), joins the group in an interesting manner and brings the perspective of a literature professor to the group. Many revelations follow. Expect more of the spotlight device to help put an orderly end to the story, one that Ana must surely approve of.
Book lovers will enjoy all of the references to many classic titles from “Ulysses” to “The Return of Tarzan.”
All of which brings us back to the director’s final message: “As you think about the play over the next few days, I hope you’ll find that you’ve gained a new perspective.” We are going to guess that Jess Headington meant more than just about the characters in the play, although they each left of us with much to consider about themselves. Headington did say “to see the world from a different perspective.” Maybe she also meant that we might see parts of each of those characters in ourselves, the facades and the ideals that we might aspire to as did Ana.
“The Book Club Play” offers so much in humor, insight and just plain old-fashioned darned good acting. There were moments when delayed pans seemed over the top until we realized that these lingering exaggerated expressions captured just the way many people act. And credit a wonderful comedic actress, Jess Headington, for directing. “The Book Club Play” runs through Sep. 15. For tickets call 707-523-4185 or go online: 6thstreetplayhouse.com.