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Friday, April 29, 2011

Review: Book Club

l-r: Johanna Nutter, Paula Costain, Alexandria Haber, Paula Jean Hixson
(photo: Darren Ell)

Who Brings a Gun to a Book Club Meeting?
Book Club’s actual plot and themes are pretty uninteresting
By Émilie Charlebois
When Ned Cox's Book Club promised “sex, drugs, violence and betrayal” I presumed I was going to sit down for an evening of lighthearted chick-lit satire. Wrong. While the first half  is definitely more of a comedy, and although cute jokes (particularly Paula Costain’s Kristel’s) are used to break up the tension actors craftily drag the audience into, there is a lot of drama and it is not as delicious as the Melrose Place or Degrassi Junior High variety. Due to the cast’s undeniable talent and the intimacy of the Freestanding Room venue, the Book Club experience is quite like being at a party when the only person you truly know has left for the bathroom or another serving of hummus and you find yourself talking to someone with loose lips who makes it their mission to either gossip about everyone else in the room, or volunteer very personal details about their life. You either listen eagerly and want to know more…or you get a little antsy. The emotional outbursts of all four characters in Book Club made me so uncomfortable that I found myself looking away or fiddling with my program. Despite the tension and feeling like a child watching adults fighting in front of me, to quote an exchange overheard between two fellow attendees: “Holy Acting!”

...somehow the actual back story to every meltdown is never fully revealed (nor is it shocking) and tensions are left unresolved.

I however found Book Club’s actual plot and themes pretty uninteresting. From the outset it is clear that these different women are …a little messed up. Ginnie, Kristel, Susan and Alanna all have their own dark secret or internal struggle that is vaguely alluded to or discovered (Do I hear  “Joy Luck Club”?) through gossip, a dream sequence or an invasion of privacy. And therefore, each character loses her nerve in her own special mental breakdown. Yet somehow the actual back story to every meltdown is never fully revealed (nor is it shocking) and tensions are left unresolved. The overall result is another story about a group of married middle aged women who are terribly unhappy but who don’t outwardly show it due to great coping mechanisms such as: sarcasm, putting others down, drugs, and excessive perkiness (not drug induced). Since the running joke of the play is that nobody in the club has actually read their first selection (Jane Eyre), the common experience these four women share is being miserable in a loveless marriage. (Yes, an unfaithful husband is one of the reasons why the love is gone). This may have been an ironic twist since a book club often provides an escape from domestic life and troubles for its members, but the personal issues and emotions which took over the agenda failed to provide an interesting alternative. 

Quite like the mildly awkward dinner party, after Book Club you’ll talk about those “crazy” people you met, the nice setting and great host, as part of a pleasant evening. You may not have had your socks rocked, but you at least enjoyed the company (when they weren’t making you anxious).

Oh right, why the gun? I honestly couldn’t say.

Running time: 2h
Read Barbara Ford's profile of playwright Ned Cox.
Read our review of his last play, Duplicity Girls.

click to enlarge


  1. Emilie,

    Like you, I was in the audience at the opening of Book Club. And while I agree with quite a few of your specific comments, my general conclusions about the show were different from yours. I liked it immensely. Reading your review has helped crystallize my thoughts: I feel that Under Ellen David's sure and subtle direction, a wonderful cast has done full justice to Ned Cox's powerful play.

    Book Club is a richly layered work about the intersection of life and literature in the experience of women. While is has many very funny moments, the play is much more than a light-hearted chicklit comedy. It is an emotional journey in which four women, and four legendary female figures in literature who become those women's counterparts, come face to face with themselves and each other as every one of them confronts a supreme crisis.

    Yes, the play offers up moments of anguish that are difficult to watch. Yes, it protrays adults locked in intense conflict. But isn't that precisely what good theatre is supposed to do? No, it isn't Melrose Place or Degrassi High. These are living, breathing human beings enacting something complicated, painful and beautiful before our eyes. We don't get commercial breaks in which to compose ourselves and remember that this is, after all, just a made-up story. This is theatre as Aristotle understood it: laughter, fear, pity and catharsis. Catharsis, of course, literally means "cleansing". We come away from Book Club having cleaned away the encrustations of habit and formula that affect us all. That, to me, is one of this production's great strengths.

    Permit me to disagree with a few of your specific comments. The characters' backstories are indeed given to us in full. We have to pay attention, but all the facts are set out through action and dialogue. (It also helps, I suspect, to have read the literary masterpieces echoed in the play: The Scarlet Letter, Madame Bovary, The Great Gatsby and Gone With the Wind - but one can fully grasp the characters' situations without having read those works.)

    And the gun isn't an arbitrary thrill; it makes perfect sense in the context of the story and of the character who pulls it out.

    Finally, a declaration of interest: I'm a Montreal actor. The people who make up the Book Club team are colleagues for whom I have great respect. They're also very dear friends.

    Yet I wouldn't say this response to your review reflects a lack of objectivity. Or even a wish that you had come to different conclusions. Your opinions, and my response, can form the basis for a broader discussion about how theatre works, and how it should work. At all events, I owe you a debt of thanks, Emilie. You forced me to think about why I deeply enjoyed this work of theatre.

    I hope other CharPo readers will go see Book Club, then weigh in.

  2. It is for precisely this kind of reasoned comment I created the Charlebois Post. Thank you, Arthur.


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