You’d think that two similarly structured plays about closely related subjects (opening the same weekend in Atlanta, no less) would have a lot in common. But in actuality, there probably aren’t two more different plays than “Seminar” at Actor’s Express, which dramatizes the weekly meetings of a group of writers, and Karen Zacarias’ “The Book Club Play” at Horizon Theatre through June 23, which dramatizes the biweekly meetings of a group of readers.
“Seminar” is a no-holds-barred, knock-down, drag-out “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”-style depiction of the competitive, ambitious, back-stabbing world of aspiring writers. “The Book Club Play” is a cloyingly sweet, comfortably predictable, saccharine and cutesy depiction of personal transformations initiated by the silly and hard-to-believe plot device of having a famous documentarian film the meetings of a long-running book club.
In real life, writers often encounter readers, but such an occurrence seems beyond the realm of possibility in the case of these plays. The two sets of characters seem to exist not on stages a short drive apart in the same city, but in separate and incompatible universes. You’re unlikely to find many theater-goers who’ll be happy at both shows. As with books, so with plays: to each his own.
In “The Book Club Play,” the Type A book club leader, Ana (Wendy Melkonian), has decided to let the meetings of her club be filmed by a famous Danish documentary director. Predictably, her plan for projecting a picture-perfect image of a sophisticated, close-knit group having soul-transforming discussions about the great literary classics begins to unravel.
The characters are paper-thin, the situations are painfully contrived, and you can see the transformations and revelations coming a mile away. It’s discomforting to have the hallowed names and words of great writers such as Herman Melville and Edith Wharton dragged into this mess, often used to move the sitcom-like plot along, make an easy, obvious joke or illustrate a point. In between club meetings, we’re given short monologues by comic characters outside the main plot — a literary agent, a Walmart employee, an FBI agent — who describe their relationships to books. I loved actress Danielle Deadwyler’s depiction of a skydiving retired librarian, and other members of the talented cast managed to make me laugh a few times, which is impressive considering what I thought of the script, but otherwise I couldn’t find much to admire.
It’s a dreary task to nitpick at something that others obviously enjoy, and it must be said that the audience seemed to have a lot of fun on the evening I went. But at two hours and 15 minutes, this thing is plainly too long for its unambitious purpose, and I did get the sense that even those who enjoyed “Book Club” were growing weary of it toward the end.
Unsurprisingly, the set — a gorgeous and gob-smackingly detailed living room in an Atlanta bungalow, created by the talented (and obviously very busy) set-designing sisters Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay — is a knockout.