Review: 'Book Club Play' cast rock solid

06:21 PM, Feb 24, 2013

Brett Robingson, John Gregario, Tom Coiner, Jessica Wortham and Kristen Mengelkoch in Geva's The Book Club Play. (Ken A. Huth)/

Why read a book when you can see the movie?” asks Rob, one of the characters in Geva’s mainstage production of The Book Club Play.

It was the sort of aha moment bookworms have heard before. Can reading page after page of symbols, hearing voices in our heads that aren’t our own, make us feel less isolated as we expand our sense of other worlds and what is possible?

Director Sean Daniels has reworked and tweaked this frothy 2008 comedy by Karen Zacarias and come up with a novel idea: to include 24-audience member “props” who serve as silent jurors on either side of the stage. Watching their faces, I realized this book club had more between its covers than conversation, wine and food.

Sure, some of the jokes are of the tumble dry variety, but the clever spin is the engaging cast of characters — five people who are being filmed for a Danish director’s documentary about book clubs.

As the cameras role, the club’s leader, the passionate newspaper columnist Ana (Jessica Wortham) who loves book club, discusses the literary value of Moby Dick with husband Rob (Tom Coiner), former boyfriend Will (John Gregorio), friend Jen (Kristen Mengelkoch) and newcomer to the group, Lily (Brett Robinson), Ana’s young and talented African-American co-worker.

As the circle of friends sip wine in Ana and Bob’s upscale living room (a gorgeous white-detailed motif by Michael Raiford) Pandora’s Box slowly opens and … surprise, surprise. One character claims, “It sucks being an overachiever,” one believes after reading Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence that he has “lost the flower of life,” another is a GQ Magazine fashion plate with a sexual identity crisis, and the other two are fighting loneliness and lack of romance.

To Ana’s horror, tension mounts when Jen invites outsider Alex (Aaron Munoz) to join their discussion on the raging success of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. The problem? Alex, a brash professor of comparative literature, has not been vetted, or voted into book club, as all had agreed for new members. It takes his recommendation, a reading of The Da Vinci Code, to bring the club to a standstill, where all personal secrets are revealed under the camera-rolling “Big Brother.”

And seeing is believing: This is a rock solid cast with enormous presence, impeccable timing and finely tuned individual personalities. Each was a standout: Wortham’s Ana is the pretentious snob you love to hate; Coiner’s Rob is the oblivious ex-football player; Gregorio’s Will is a master of stereotypical “gaydar” mannerisms; Mengelkoch (the wonderfully kooky housemaid in Geva’s Perfect Wedding) as Jen is delightfully mismatched and scatterbrained; Robinson’s Lily is hip, smart and trendy.

But it was Munoz as Alex who created a bigger-than-life presence by challenging the unspoken rules of the club and creating havoc in the intimate group dynamics.

My only complaint with The Book Club Play is that the ending is all neatly tied up with a ribbon and bow. Let the cameras roll a bit longer — and let’s see what happens in the sequel. It could be juicy.