Front Row Reviews

“The Book Club Play” Spotlights Group Connections

Karen Zacarías’ comedic production, “The Book Club Play,” staged at Ross Valley Players, superbly captures the quirks of a book-reading group and the cultural, racial, class complexities that may accompany it.

Ronald E. Krempetz Scenic Design of a comfortable living room with a light-colored recliner and chair on one side and full couch on the other side feels welcoming. Filled wine glasses adorn a simple coffee table. A sketch of a spread open book is displayed middle stage on the back wall. Ellen Brooks lighting design, coupled with Billie Cox’s Video and Sound Production springs this production to life.

As a member of a book club, I found myself chuckling at the familiar rituals: the obligatory pre-meeting wine and snacks, the quick, or not-so-quick, catch-ups on personal lives. Toward the end, a lively discussion ensues for our next choice, often over prominent books featured on the NY Times weekly list. We rigorously scrutinize who can enter our cherished group.

However, Zacarias’ story adds a devious plot. Uptight and elitist, Ana (vibrant Elena Wright) has thrusted her book-possessed, suit-clad, friend, Will (steadfast Matthew Travisano), as well as the group, into the spotlight–after she insists they sign waivers. Lars Knudsen, a renowned Danish documentarian, selects them as the subjects for his latest film on book clubs. Suddenly, an unwelcome intruder looms over their gatherings – a remote camera positioned in the middle of Ana’s living room ceiling.

Jannely Calmell as Jen, Matthew Travisano as Will

Ana’s loving husband, Rob (easygoing Mark Vashro), is more interested in the company and cuisine than the literary discussions. He refuses to read any of the designated classic books. Jen (sweet Jannely Calmell), a scatterbrained friend of Will’s, adds a touch of warmth to the group with her thoughtful insights. Lily (questioning Chiyako Delores), Ana’s new dark-skinned coworker has just moved into town, and craves social interaction.

The cast delivers stellar performances, teetering on the edge of caricature, under the direction of Mary Ann Rogers. She maintains a brisk pace and amplifies the characters’ interpersonal dynamics. With Lars’ ever-watchful eye capturing their every move, tensions rise and secrets unravel.

Add to Ana’s perfect group, Jen invites a Professor of Contemporary Fiction who lives in her building. Ana’s anxiety mounts as cocky Alex (forthright Gabriel A. Ross), captures the heart of the books club with requests like Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Alex is sick of classics. Ana collapses as she loses the grasp on her group. They want read Twilight and other popular fiction. Will she gain back control after the group votes him in as member?

Chiyako Delores as Lily, Gabriel A. Ross as Alex

Whimsical attractions are added stage right, as sideline videos pop up, featuring a diverse array of characters portrayals by versatile Marsha van Broek. She entices the audience to embrace reading. In these quirky presentations, she fervently encourages viewers to dive into books, even as she promotes a classic title unavailable at Walmart, or showcases a skydiver engrossed in reading mid-flight.

Marsha van Broek as Pundit

Although the plot is uneven and some of the language and personal reactions drifts back to its 2008 roots, the “Book Club Play” deftly weaves thought-provoking themes of class, culture, and racial diversity. It reminds us of the chaos and inevitable fallout that accompanies any significant change within any group dynamic.

Come and have some fun. See if your book group, or any of your groups, mirror the characters in “The Book Club Play.”

“The Book Club Play” by Kan Zacarias, directed by Mary Ann Rogers at Ross Valley Players, Ross California. Info: to June 10, 2024

Cast: Marsha van Broek, Jannely Calmell, Gabriel A. Ross, Matthew Travisano, Mark Vashro, Elena Wright

Banner photo: Mark Vashro as Rob, Elena Wright as Ana Photos By RobinJackson