Let's do some basic forensics on how a thing as wretched as The Book Club Play got produced at the Dallas Theater Center. DTC is our big League of Resident Theatres professional showplace with a large staff dedicated to bringing top quality scripts, new and old, to audiences. There have to be valid reasons why The Book Club Play, two of the most bafflingly bad hours of theater ever wrought upon the Kalita Humphreys stage, came to be done there. More valid than "lots of other regional theaters are doing it."
First performed, to less-than-laudatory reviews, at Bethesda, Maryland's Round House Theatre in 2008, and then soon after at the Berkshire Summer Festival, The Book Club Play has been rewritten a number of times by its playwright, Karen Zacarías. It gained momentum with a 2013 production at Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage, one of the country's pre-eminent regional theaters, when Zacarías was picked as a resident dramatist supported by a million-dollar grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. She was provided with a nice salary, health insurance and production assistance, and her play, reworked yet again, came and went with ho-hums from critics. Too bad the Mellon Foundation can't demand a refund.
The Book Club Play continues to roll on in regional theaters, many the same size and caliber as DTC. This terrible, rotten, no-good, really bad play. Big productions. Coast to coast. Is there a secret handshake among play-pickers at regional companies that they'll do the Mellon-backed plays, no matter how weak the writing? Is the Arena Stage seen as a harbinger of popular taste in new comedies and dramas? Did the higher-ups at DTC not read the script before adding it to the lineup?
How is this play bad? In every way, but start with the set-up. A small group of smarty-pants in their 30s and 40s convene biweekly to talk about a book they've read. (Remember book clubs? They were kind of a thing about eight or 10 years ago, you know, when Oprah was still picking the titles everyone should have on their coffee tables.) This club, located in no specific place in America (another mistake by Zacarías), has been at it for a few years, but now there's a new twist to their get-togethers. A Danish filmmaker has set up a remotely controlled camera in the living room of the group's hostess, Ana (played at DTC with maximum grumpy-cat face by company member Christie Vela). This never-seen Von Trier-like documentarian wants to capture an American book club going about their in-depth discussions of Moby-Dick and The Age of Innocence.
Every character is a stereotype so tired no sitcom would use it anymore. Not even on ABC. Ana, a control-freaky harridan in ill-fitting knits, is married to doltish pharma salesman Rob (Jeffrey Schmidt), who prefers movies and never reads the assignments. Ana's best friend Jen (SMU student Sarah Rutan) is a sad-sack spinster. Rob's old college roomie Will (Steven Michael Walters) is a 40-year-old lisping priss who insists he's not gay, but flaps his wrists so hard he almost hovers. Lily (SMU student Tiana Kaye Johnson) is young, sassy and black, a budding columnist about to usurp older Ana at the paper where they work. (Remember newspapers? They were also kind of a thing eight or 10 years ago.)
One night a new guy shows up for the book club meeting and throws Ana into a tizz. He's Alex (new DTC company actor Brandon Potter, who has some refreshing moves), a comparative lit professor who rocks a Breaking Bad bald-with-beard look. When he rings the doorbell, the group reacts like a bomb's gone off (hey, they're in one). "He could be an ax murderer!" someone shrieks.
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After all these years, all those rewrites and all that money supporting her, the best Zacarías could do is make this a fake reality show inside an unfunny sitcom stuck on a stage. The plot is a mess and the dialogue full of groaners like the line about the Melville novel having homoerotic themes because "Isn't Moby-Dick a sperm whale?" Someone actually says "Don't judge a book by its cover."
Scenes between scenes feature the same actors playing other characters -- Walmart manager, literary agent, senior citizen -- talking about favorite books. They say things like "Did you know romance is still the most popular genre in American literature?" Well, thanks, Wikipedia.
DTC's production, directed with over-broad strokes by Meredith McDonough, does boast a stunning mid-century modern set by designer Daniel Zimmerman, with a low tangerine sofa, bubble-base lamps and sleek curved walls. It's scenery that deserves a better play. Blame everything but the furniture.
The Book Club Play continues through February 1 at Kalita Humphreys Theatre, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd, tickets $18 and up at dallastheatercenter.org or call 214-880-0202.