Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Have any good books read you lately? IRT's 'The Book Club Play' probes more than amuses

The Book Club suddenly becomes aware they're on camera.

It would be kind of la-di-da to open a blog post with a couple of epigraphs, so I'll get my thoughts on Indiana Repertory Theatre's "The Book Club Play" started with two quotations that might serve the same purpose. The first is also the title of a volume, published more than 40 years ago,  of essays by Marvin Mudrick, a fiercely independent literary critic. It poses a perennial, but seldom asked, question: "Books Are Not Life But Then What Is?"  

The other is from a letter Franz Kafka wrote in 1904, containing an even more arresting thought: "Good Lord, we could be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to." After a few more startling insights into the kind of books the budding genius thought people need, Kafka's letter hits a climax which Borders, now defunct, isolated on those complimentary bookmarks you used to get: "A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us."

I'm tempted to think Karen Zacarias based the second act of her wrenching comedy on the first Kafka excerpt I've used here. But the axe-and-frozen-sea image and the Mudrick title together are enough to embrace the relationships that settle and unsettle the play's six characters. Book clubs implicitly echo Mudrick in refusing to regard what we read, especially if it deeply affects us, as snuggling in some precious cocoon of experience apart from our everyday lives as imperiled Monarch butterflies.

The living room at Ana and Rob's Midwestern home in the last decade is where Kafka's axe is at first avoided, then both deftly and clumsily swung, with purpose and effect, on some interior frozen seas. What a pleasure, by the way,  to gather at IRT  and feast your eyes on Junghyun Georgia Lee's comfortable set, under lighting invitingly designed by Betsy Cooprider-Bernstein! As the action unfolds, it will magnify the irony of the setting. You think at first it will be like E.E. Cummings' milieu of "Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls." But no, the furnishings you don't see are partial, and the souls must fend for themselves.

Ana (Andrea San Miguel) has applied her controlling personality to leading the group. Such a person is among the dangers of book-club culture you can find in the online literature. Others are rules for deciding what books to read, how to assign responsibility for choosing the books, welcoming guests, vetting new members, and dealing with someone's inevitable failure to get through the assigned book (Rob, played doggedly and quizzically by Sean Davis, is practically a non-reader who turns out to be quite capable of literary engagement). 

These all have their bearing on what happens in "The Book Club Play," of course. The play's ingenious notion behind these common issues is that this book club is being recorded on reality-show terms by a Danish film maker who wants to produce a documentary on a 21st-century American cultural phenomenon. The meetings of this book club are under uninterrupted surveillance by the camera.

Will welcomes identity crisis as Ana looks on.

Clearly this ratchets up the self-consciousness that may well overtake ordinary book clubs. Participants get to know each other, whether the chosen reading matter is light or heavy. If novels are the focus, as they often are, responses to style, characterization, plot, and setting all clamor for individualized attention. Taste tends to be a cover for deeper matters. In "The Book Club Play," the inevitable wish to censor or alter what is said surfaces from time to time, with abrupt changes in spontaneity (there are some great "freezes" in this show) as the monster technology's power is recognized.

The commentary offered by the characters is supplemented by having five of the actors (all except Andrea San Miguel) also cast as "Pundits." Given somewhat satirical cameo monologues like those breakouts from the old "Laugh-In" show, these characters are nothing like the Book Club people we come to know. They have various other connections to books, from scholarly to retail. 

Mudrick's reminder that, without books, it might be hard to define life (at least in places where leisure and literacy are common)  applies to the Pundits. Mudrick was among an eccentric lot of public intellectuals of literary bent who emerged in the past mid-century, a constellation also including Leslie Fiedler, Richard Kostelanetz, Seymour Krim, and Benjamin DeMott. Genre fiction and American mythologizing tendencies were meat and drink to them, as highbrow notions of the canon unraveled amid Cold War anxieties and pop-culture marketing. General anxiety and pop-culture domination have only metastasized since then.

The play's structure had me lost in admiration. I was fascinated by the relief the Pundits give to the living-room embroilment and the way omnipresent reality TV affects the action. I parted company, oddly, with the hilarity generated by the actors under the direction of Benjamin Hanna and the complementary response of the audience, which reveled in the facetiousness. Don't get me wrong: this is a comedy with a considerable amount of laugh lines, and director and cast seem at one with it. But the play's deeper exploration resonated more with me.

Alex (Adam Poss) is the provocative new member.

On opening-night Friday, the actors reveled in broad comic interpretations steeped in TV sit-com aesthetics. The gestures and movement, the exaggerated pitches of voice in some cases, called forth a legacy now so well-stocked that someday "I Love Lucy" may be regarded as a comedy of manners. 

The characters have appealing aspects stamped upon them, but the only one I liked was the newcomer, Alex (Adam Poss), who despite the provocative turn he gives the club is an island of calm self-possession. Everything about him eased my mind. Kudos for the rapport and individual vividness lent to Will (Will Mobley), Jen (Emily Berman) and Lily (Cassia Thompson), but they all (along with hosts Ana and Rob) seemed exhausting bundles of nerves and needs. 

Across the back of the set there are impressive white-on-black projections of words from the considered texts. Mike Tutaj's work helps keep the show's ostensible subject clear, central, and vibrant.  Passages from "Moby Dick," "The Age of Innocence," "The Return of Tarzan," and "Twilight" indicate the varied progress of seriousness and tone represented by the books considered. The effect of "The Da Vinci Code" is particularly explosive.

The characters, for all their psychic tangles, are somehow as involved with these books as they are with one another. That's likely part of the allure of actually existing book clubs, especially given that they aren't subject to the compulsory filmed scrutiny Zacarias devises for her clever play. 

It returns me to Mudrick's challenging question, slightly recast: If books are not life, then what the hell is? And in the background, the secular Saint Franz is still muttering: "Good Lord, we could be happy precisely if we had no books." 

For us readers, the only rejoinder to that echoes Jack Benny's patrician indignation: "Now, wait a minute!" Then you're ready to attend "The Book Club Play," and if you laugh more than I did, that's a bonus to the thrill we share in just being back at the IRT.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

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