Performing Arts

‘The Book Club Play’ comes up short on laughs and substance

Paul Tei, Lela Elam, Michael McKeever, Barbara Sloan, Stephen G. Anthony and Niki Fridh discuss literature in ‘The Book Club Play’ at Actors’ Playhouse.
Paul Tei, Lela Elam, Michael McKeever, Barbara Sloan, Stephen G. Anthony and Niki Fridh discuss literature in ‘The Book Club Play’ at Actors’ Playhouse. George Schiavone

Karen Zacarías’ The Book Club Play, the newest Actors’ Playhouse production at the Miracle Theatre, would seem to have everything going for it.

The Washington D.C.-based Zacarías is an award-winning playwright whose scripts (including this one) have been produced at regional theaters all over the country. Her comedic subject, the politics and personalities within a book club, has a wide built-in appeal, particularly to book group-involved theatergoers. And director David Arisco has cast his production with six of South Florida’s best actors, performers equally adept at comedy and drama.

Yet a show that should be buoyed by waves of laughter mostly produces bubbles of giggles and guffaws. Yes, audiences who want nothing more than light entertainment when they go to a show seem to like The Book Club Play. But this particular script isn’t nearly inventive or insightful enough to turn a craftsmanlike work into a gem.

The play takes place in the stylish home of Ana (Barbara Sloan), a Miami Herald columnist, and her husband Rob (Stephen G. Anthony), whose career in pharmaceutical sales is going very well, indeed — nothing like hard times to pump up the antidepressant market. Will (Michael McKeever), a curator of Greek antiquities who happens to be Ana’s first boyfriend and Rob’s former college roommate, is in the club, too. So are Jen (Niki Fridh), a paralegal with a scandal in her past, and Lily (Lela Elam), Ana’s younger Herald colleague and the group’s only black member.

Zacarías’ iffy conceit is that an unseen Danish documentarian, Lars Knudsen, is recording the club’s meetings for a film Ana imagines will land at Cannes or Sundance. Given Knudsen’s deadlines, the group is meeting every two weeks instead of monthly — that means reading more and reading faster — and since the fixed, locked, timer-triggered camera is set up at Ana’s and Rob’s place, all the meetings have to take place there instead of moving from one member’s home to the next.

Actually, that’s fine with control-freak Ana, who smiles but shudders ever so slightly when anyone fails to pronounce her name as “Ah-nah.” God help the man who rhymes it with “banana.” Chic and smart, Ana insists on picking (literally) weighty books: Moby Dick, War and Peace, Ulysses, all right up her alley. Rob, who never reads the books, points out that he’s in the club because it’s at his house, he likes the people, and he digs the wine and food that are served.

Book clubs discuss that month’s selection to a greater or lesser degree, but this bunch barely scratches the literary surface (because, you know, that might make for a really boring play). Instead, members begin by reading a passage from the book, even quotes from the dust jacket (!). Hmmm.

The Book Club Play and this production shift into a higher gear with the arrival of Alex (Paul Tei), a comparative literature professor who, after getting dumped by his Twilight-obsessed girlfriend, has been doing some deep thinking about high art vs. pop culture. Invited without advance permission by Jen (a no-no in Ana’s vetted world), Alex shakes up the group by advocating for such sterling examples of literature as the Twilight books, Fifty Shades of Grey, The Da Vinci Code and, Rob’s fave, The Return of Tarzan.

Ana’s carefully ordered world comes crashing down, all in front of the unblinking eye of Knudsen’s camera, which records an extramarital kiss, a sexual (orientation) awakening, not-for-primetime confessions and more. But what might have been hilarious is usually not much more than mildly entertaining.

It’s not that the actors, each of whom gets a solo cameo as a totally different character whose life intersects with books, don’t try. Tei is a master of amiable snark, relaxed yet riveting. Anthony’s deadpan, precisely timed delivery is a pleasure to take in. McKeever’s fussy, sweet Will fools no one but himself. Sloan is radiant and funny as the tightly controlled Ana, Fridh an amusing underachiever as Jen, and Elam an ingratiating yet ambitious woman who’s not afraid of speaking the truth as Lily.

Designers Jodi Dellaventura (set), Ellis Tillman (costumes), Eric Nelson (lighting) and Shaun Mitchell (sound) creatively dot all their “i”s and cross all their “t”s in realizing the world of the play. But in terms of substance, The Book Club Play is more like light reading than literature.

If you go

What: ‘The Book Club Play’ by Karen Zacarías.

Where: Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday (additional performance 2 p.m. May 20), through June 7.

Cost: $53 Friday-Saturday, $45 other performances (10 percent discount for seniors, $15 student rush tickets, excludes Saturday-Sunday; group discounts for 10 or more).