Karen Zacarias on the Drama of ‘Book Clubs’

I took the Green Line Metro to meet with Karen Zacarias for an interview at Arena Stage, where her play, “The Book Club Play,” would be premiering the following night. I went to see the play, too, but in a somewhat altered state of mind.

In the in the interest of full disclosure, this is a somewhat different story than I had perhaps intended. The intent was to write a feature about “The Book Club Play,” a play that has gone through a number of re-writes, incarnations and productions, making it the product of an unusual process. It intrigued me also because it was about people who belonged to a book club and was therefore about books, to which I am as devoted as a caveman is to his clubs and sticks (even as the rest of the tribe seems to be moving on to technologically superior gadgets like bows and arrows and iPads).

Zacarias sat down with me in the upper-level dining area of the new Arena building—which still has a pinch-me quality about—and I started to ask some questions conversationally, and we both allowed that we looked familiar to each other. Then I made mention of my dog Bailey and Lanier Place, where I live. And then of course it clicked. “You’re Bailey’s dad,” she said. “I’m your neighbor.”

Well, it turns out that we’ve run into each other infrequently over the years, usually in the company of our dogs. As it appears, her dog, Frieda, and my dog, Bailey, have a relationship of mutual curiosity, interest and affection. But, as often happens with dog owners, we only ever talked about dogs, not our professional lives. So I did not know that Zacarias was a prolific playwright whose plays had been performed at Arena Stage and other theaters and that she was an adjunct Georgetown University professor, for that matter. And she wasn’t aware that I wrote about theater for The Georgetowner. This is not unusual; sometimes it takes years for names to be exchanged between dog owners, let alone professional information.

I know now that the playwright Zacarias has lived on the firehouse side of Lanier Place for a number of years and is raising three children—Nico, 9, Kate 7, and Maia, 5—with her husband, Rett Snotherly, a patent attorney. I also now know that she also belongs to a book club.

What I didn’t know before is that Zacarias, who was born to a Danish mother and a Mexican father, has already had a number of plays staged, including two at Arena, “Legacy of Light” and an adaptation of the Julia Alvarez novel “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.”

And it was “The Book Club Play” that has brought her back to Arena and back to director Molly Smith. The play has already been performed at Round House Theater in Bethesda and at the Berkshire Theater Festival in Stockbridge, MA.

But Zacarias felt that she was not done with the play, and she continued to work on it—right up to its premiere at Arena. “I think now it’s deeper,” she said. “And it’s also funnier.”

“The Book Club Play” is about a group of people who meet regularly at a one of the member’s homes to discuss a book chosen by one of the members that all have read. At the center of this club is a woman named Ana, a successful columnists and feature writer for a Post-like newspaper. A strong woman, compulsively controlling, Ana treats the club as if it’s the center of her world, like a family or child she has created. She loves the club members: her husband, who rarely reads the assigned books and always hopes for a movie version; an academic and school friend; a jazzy, high-energy younger colleague at the paper; and a paralegal with a confidence problem. But when a newcomer arrives—a pushy, intrusive professor of comparative literature—along with the fact that the club is the ongoing subject for a film documentary (a camera is recording their every meeting), sparks fly, secrets erupt and drama, comedy and theater ensues.

Zacarias got a chance to revisit and rework “The Book Club Play” after being accepted to an Arena playwright-in-residence program, which specifically focuses on allowing playwrights to either write new plays or look again at older works.

“Some of the characters have changed a little, and the structure, the frame of the documentary is different,” Zacarias said. “But I think the dynamics are similar. But they’re more detailed, more dramatic.”

Books, of course, are very much on her mind. “There’s always this debate, about what art is, what literature is and what’s popular— and the value of books,” she said. “That’s part of the drama, the fuel for the drama and conflicts—the husband wants to do a “Tarzan” book, but ends up with Edith Wharton’s ‘The Age of Innocence.’ Other members want to take on the ‘Twilight’ books. It’s kind of a challenge to Ana, who takes books seriously, but it’s the kind of discussion we all have, I think. We all like to read so-called pop or junkie books.”

I eyed the book I had brought for the Metro: “The Affair,” a Jack Reacher thriller. Not exactly high-minded art. “There you are,” she said. “Everybody has something like that.”

“I also like to think that the play is kind of a celebration of theater,” she said. “It engages people, I know that. People have talked back during the previews—literally, out loud—which usually doesn’t happen.”

People may or may not see themselves on stage, and if they do, it’s probably at least in part because of a strong cast—especially Kate Eastwood Norris as Ana, a character who could easily be annoying with her attempts at defining and controlling her friends and husband. Norris makes her almost innocent in her cluelessness hitched to determination. There’s no malice there.

But “The Book Club Play” is not a documentary, nor is it the theater of realism. It is engaging to audiences because it looks so familiar. It’s not so much about the people on stage as it is about what happens in theater, what happens on the screens we watch constantly in all their guises. And it’s about what happens between the covers of a book. This is the stuff of our daily lives—the secrets in novels and plays, the high-energy emotions of stories, the shocking humor of embarrassment and ignorance—revved up to drama. We engage the men and women in “The Book Club Play” like we engage the characters in “The Sopranos,” or a Bette Davis movie, or a rambunctious door-slamming farce. We laugh, we cry, we recognize, and I think that’s why audiences react the way they do, which is to say in kinetically, energetically responsive ways.

Ana herself manages to write a novel about her book club, yet another way of avoiding motherhood—or rather, having another substitute child. But her friends think otherwise. They think it should be a play.

One of them says, “Imagine Up In Lights: The Book Club Play.”

Imagine that.

It would be like having a playwright living down the street and not knowing it. Very cool.

“The Book Club Play,” written by Karen Zacarias and directed by Molly Smith, will be at Arena Stage through Nov. 6, 2011. For more information visit ArenaStage.org

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