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Seminar and Book Club Play present opposing sides of literary life

Seminar's caustic comedy makes Book Club's shrill hijinks feel paper-thin

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The most amusing twist in Karen Zacarías' The Book Club Play occurs when the titular organization takes a detour away from the American literary canon. The club's organizer, Ana (Wendy Melkonian), doesn't disguise her annoyance when her friends shift from the likes of Moby-Dick to trashy mass-market best-sellers, including a certain vampire-based YA franchise.

Playing through June 23 at Horizon Theatre, The Book Club Play makes a case for the value of popular entertainment, which proves unexpectedly appropriate. Shrill and obvious, The Book Club Play makes bald appeals to its audience while showing little literary value of its own. For the theatrical equivalent of a rich, well-observed novel, Actor's Express presents Theresa Rebeck's Seminar, a cutting comedy about a tortuous but prestigious writing class. It's a fortunate coincidence that the same weekend saw the premieres of matching plays about people who read books and those who want to write them. In comparison, Seminar makes The Book Club Play look paper-thin.

Both plays feature top-notch casting, with Book Club's highly talented ensemble of comedic performers acting to the rafters. In addition to hyper-controlling Ana and her ex-jock husband (Bryan Brendle), the group includes Ana's young colleague Lily (Danielle Deadwyler), a lovelorn friend (Maria Rodriguez-Sager), and Ana's old college boyfriend (John Benzinger) who claims none-too-convincingly to be straight. Lily invites to the group a jilted English professor (Dan Triandiflou) who disrupts Ana's sense of order and the conventional wisdom about artistic value.

The Book Club Play includes some clever moments in which passages from famous books mirror the character's relationships, with Ana's marriage finding a parallel in The Age of Innocence. Unfortunately, the play's defining gimmick is that a famous Scandinavian documentarian is filming the meetings with an automatic camera, so The Book Club Play riffs as much on reality TV as it comments on people's relationships with reading matter.

Between the meetings, the play includes monologues from cartoonish roles such as literary agent and a Walmart bookseller (presumably interviewees from the finished film). Inevitably, characters make their most embarrassing mistakes and private revelations on camera. The Book Club Play at times echoes the faux-documentary style of TV comedies like "The Office" and "Modern Family," but those sitcoms prove vastly more subtle and insightful.

While The Book Club Play celebrates books, Seminar finds caustic humor in the desperation and self-consciousness en route to publication. Like The Book Club Play, Seminar takes place at regular gatherings over time. Here, four would-be writers and their instructor meet at a spacious, rent-controlled New York apartment belonging to Kate (Cara Mantella), a mousy Jane Austen enthusiast. Kate's colleagues include a pretentious nice guy (David Plunkett), an anxious bohemian (Barrett Doyle), and a calculating sexpot (Bryn Striepe), who all seek the approbation of Leonard (Andrew Benator), a writing teacher as famous for his publishing connections as for his brutal treatment of his pupils.

Director Freddie Ashley builds enormous tension with quiet moments of Leonard silently reading manuscripts as he lets pages fall to the floor. At times, the suspense has the locked-room quality of a Saw movie: Who will be the next victim of Leonard's merciless critiques? Benator perfectly captures Leonard's bullying self-regard as he ridicules the students between tangents about his trips to the Third World. The infuriating thing about his nasty critiques of the writers and their work is that he's largely correct. The only thing worse than an asshole is an asshole who's right.

Rebeck effectively mines the audience's hunger to see Leonard taken down a peg, but the play's final two scenes take some unexpected twists that humanize the teacher and excuse his behavior. Seminar sets up Kate as a protagonist, then switches emphasis to another character in kind of a fake-out. A plot point seems to betray a character and endorse Leonard's knee-jerk sexism, which comes as a surprise given that Rebeck's a woman.

Nevertheless, Seminar unfolds in what feels like the real world, particularly through lines like "All everyone wants are memoirs," which reflect genuine trends and express the frustration of aspiring fiction writers. The Book Club Play not only takes on the broadest, easiest literary targets imaginable, the conflicts and upbeat resolutions feel too contrived. The Book Club Play features lively performances and works hard to please its crowd, but Seminar deserves the longer shelf life.

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