Lit Girl: Just one of Sarah Marshall’s interstitial book fans

I’ve never done the book-club thing myself—who’s got time, with all the theater?—so I’ll take it on faith that Karen Zacarias has done justice to the horror in The Book Club Play.

No, strike that: I’ll take it on the evidence of many a knowing guffaw from the chummy, bookish-looking gaggles clumped among the quieter subscriber types at last Sunday’s matinee. Apparently a few local reading clubs had come en masse to the final preview of Zacarias’ ambitious, agreeably book-besotted comedy—and if the house wasn’t entirely rockin’, their enthusiastic response suggested that there’s plenty recognizable in Zacarias’ comically hyperbolic portrait. The politics and the power games, the sugar-coated one-upmanship and the treacherous emotional minefields, the foolishness and flat-out craziness—who knew a group of so-called friends could find itself so tangled up over a good book?

What happens? Basically, it’s a classic stranger-comes-to-town plot: The alpha-girl ruler of a long-standing book club (Lise Bruneau) feels her iron grip loosening after her beta girl invites a stranger into the circle. (Beta girl met him in the laundry room; he was reading War and Peace.)

Complications procedural, existential, and medical ensue, all within view of the ever-present camera set up by a grad student working on a thesis documentary. If you think that device isn’t about poking fun at how often we perform a prettied-up version of ourselves for public consumption—well, you must be one of the rare few who doesn’t hunger for that statutory 15 minutes, no? And if you don’t think it’s an invitation for the actors to freight every third line with a layer or two of subtext, well, you’re paying them (and merrily mischievous director Nick Olcott) no compliment.

With that all-seeing eye always on the watch, you know the club is headed for a spectacular breakup: Will alpha girl’s fussy former boyfriend (Sasha Olinick) find an outlet for all that repressed energy? Will the group’s lone African-American member (Erika Rose) inspire a desperately awkward spasm of multiculti self-consciousness, and will she cheerfully yank the others’ chains as they shove their feet haplessly in their mouths? Will dishwater-wan beta girl (Connan Morrissey) fall for the goofy interloper (Matthew Detmer) or for alpha girl’s disenchanted but hunky hubby (Jason Paul Field)? And for heaven’s sake, will hubby ever convince the group that Edgar Rice Burroughs is worth their collective attention?

Count on it, or count on most of it, anyway (wouldn’t want to spoil anything)—and count on at least one pre-intermission twist turning out to be not quite what it pretends to be. If not every development is a total surprise, and not every plot thread gets neatly tidied up, there’s plenty of invention and plenty of craft. Plenty of solid laughs, too, packaged in Zacarias’ wittily literate script. Take the War and Peace bit: When one character points out that he’s read “the new translation,” Olinick’s overachieving prisspot replies that he has too—“both of them.” Gotta love that: In a breath, he’s simultaneously one-upped a friend and name-checked the hottest haute-literary controversy of 2007.

And the play’s overarching conceit—we’re meant to be watching the finished documentary, a notion nicely realized in James Kronzer’s deceptively simple-looking set and JJ Kaczynski’s cleverly integrated projections—makes possible an entertaining running gag: Intercut with the progression of monthly book club meetings, the “documentary” serves up a string of vox-pop interviews on the topic of book lust. Talking heads include a literary agent speaking purest Brooklynese, an immigrant construction worker learning to read after a disabling accident, a gay ex–Secret Service agent, and more—all played, mostly hilariously, by Sarah Marshall. There’s no more gamely chameleonic a character actor in Washington, and her savviness with such things pays off brilliantly in the one about the Wal-Mart book buyer who’s not quite the tool you think he is.

That’s what’s nice about The Book Club Play: Zacarias all but begs you to judge its characters by their covers, and Olcott’s cast is crafty enough to convince you, conventional wisdom be damned, that it’s OK to go ahead and pass sentence just this once. And the whole business, happily, is just clever enough to make you laugh at yourself when that turns out to be, as always, a bad idea.