Clever comedy and chaos in ‘The Book Club Play’ at Everyman Theatre

A fun, bookish farce for bookworms who want to share a knowing chuckle.

A love of literature, a sense of community and collegiality, a few glasses of wine and a cheese board: these are the essentials of a good book club, but they don’t necessarily make for good drama. But in DC playwright Karen Zacarías’ The Book Club Play directed with warmth and good humor by Laura Kepley, now onstage at Everyman Theatre in Baltimore, the addition of a documentary camera and a new member creates chaos and comedy. It’s a fun, bookish farce for bookworms who want to share a knowing chuckle at a throwaway reference to Ulysses and the perfect play for “the city that reads.”

Ana Smith is the leader of the book club, a successful newspaper columnist who lives her perfect life with her good-natured husband in her beautifully curated home (an aspirational living room library set up in pale blue and cream designed by Andrew Cohen). And there is nothing she loves more in her little fiefdom than her book club. As played by Tuyêt Thį Phåm with exactness and control, Ana believes that book club brings out the best in people, creating community and elevating conversations. Ana has agreed to allow the legendary Danish filmmaker Lars Knudsen (the “K” is emphatically vocalized by all) to film her book club for a documentary that she believes will be screened at Cannes.

The Cast of ‘The Book Club Play’ (Steve Polites, Tuyết Thị Phạm, Tony Nam, Megan Anderson, and Majenta Thomas). Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

The cast — consisting mostly of Everyman’s Resident Company Members — gels well together, showing the sort of trust and rhythms developed by these actors who appear so frequently onstage together. Tony Nam plays Ana’s former college beau and best friend forever, the equally rigid and repressed museum curator William Lee Nothnagel. Megan Anderson plays Jennifer McClintock, a burnt-out paralegal whose long-ago dalliance with a senator has ended her legal career. Zack Powell plays the heartbroken comparative literature professor Alex, who upends group dynamics by suggesting they read bestsellers like The Da Vinci Code, and Bruce Randolph Nelson plays a bevy of documentary drop-in interviews from a fast-talking literary agent to a prison book peddler to a skydiving librarian. Each character played by Nelson becomes more ludicrous with more than a wink at Christoper Guest’s famous comic mockumentaries. There are two non–Company Members who are real scene stealers: Steve Polites plays Ana’s husband, Rob Novum Smith, a pharmaceutical rep with the easygoing demeanor of a golden retriever who only joins the book club for the food and company, and Majenta Thomas — who works in the box office at Everyman — makes her Everyman debut as Lily Louise Jackson, a cool, younger newspaper fact checker who aspires to have her own column… and was invited to join to diversify the book club’s membership.

While Ana hopes that her dear friends will be on their best behavior — if you’ve ever read a book, any book basically — you know this isn’t going to be the case. The camera creates and captures conflicts, more than one unexpected kiss, a coming-out story, a political sexual scandal, microaggressions, casual racism, marital discord, and an utter meltdown during filming.

Over the next six weeks, the group will thumb through six books to discuss together, with projection designs by Kelly Colburn recreating the books’ covers and offering the documentary’s lower thirds. In addition to the fun and salacious interpersonal dynamics, bibliophiles will love the actual scenes where they discuss literature with 30 books interwoven into the dialogue.

Between the selections and their discussions, we see that the group is engaging in some serious bibliotherapy. Jen’s choice of The Age of Innocence — the only book Rob actually reads  — awakens in the genial Rob a sense that something, his “flower of life,” is missing, and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code inspires Will to share his own big secret. There are debates about what merits great literature and gushing over the joy of pop culture reads. There are sperm whale and dick jokes while discussing Herman Melville’s classic and lamentations that Heathcliff has ruined romance for many straight women (sigh).

TOP LEFT: Tuyết Thị Phạm (Ana); TOP RIGHT: Tony Nam (Will); ABOVE: Tuyết Thị Phạm, Majenta Thomas, Tony Nam, and Zack Powell, in ‘The Book Club Play.’). Photos by Teresa Castracane Photography.

As Ana loses control over her book club, she decides to write her own novel/exposé, which becomes the group’s final read. But with this book club book about a book club in a play about a book club, this contemporary comedy reaches a new level of self-referentiality and metatheatricality. It’s also where The Book Club Play loses some of its fun as the characters turn on each other and all literary pretense dissipates, but this good humor is recaptured in the documentary’s “Where are they now” conclusion.

The Book Club Play doesn’t break new ground, but it also doesn’t need to. It’s silly and cozy and comforting all while being clever, too. It’s like curling up with your favorite book, or better yet, discussing it with your five closest friends over wine.

Running Time: Two hours with a 15-minute intermission.

The Book Club Play plays through April 14, 2024, at Everyman Theatre, 315 West Fayette St., Baltimore, MD. Purchase tickets ($29–$75) online or contact the box office by phone at 410-752-2208 (Monday–Friday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m., and Saturday, 12-4 p.m.) or email [email protected].

Accessibility: Everyman emphasizes their commitment to accessibility for all, including those with economic challenges, with Pay What You Choose prices.

The cast and creative credits are online here (scroll down).

COVID Safety: Masks are encouraged, though not required. Everyman’s complete health and safety guide is here.


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