Summer is not yet half over, and we are hot and tired and want a chilled beverage. If we must be entertained, we want simple amusements, please, Beckett can wait until November.
Actors Theatre — poor, beleaguered, recently almost-dead Actors Theatre — has delivered what we need. This professional theater company's summer stock season, made up of a pair of full-length plays performed on alternating weeks in repertory, and a longish list of one- and two-person shows during days between, serves to remind us how much we might have missed them if they, like so many other financially frail troupes, had left us.
One of the two-acts is Karen Zacarias' The Book Club Play, wherein Ana (Maren Maclean), a columnist for a city weekly hosts a twice-monthly book group in her home. Its other members are Ana's husband, Rob (Joe Kremer), their longtime friend Will (Tyler Eglen), her friend Jen (Angelica Howland), and a young colleague of Ana's, Lily (newcomer Alexis Green). They're joined late in Act One by Alex (Ian Christiansen), a comparative literature professor whose fiancée recently dumped him. This group is being filmed by a Danish documentarian for a movie about the popularity in America of such clubs, and we first meet its members in enacted clips from the completed documentary.
Ana's leadership is challenged by a new member who convinces the members to trade up the group's usual literary list (they've recently read Moby-Dick and The Age of Innocence) for populist fiction like The Da Vinci Code. Endless tiffs about the value of literature ensue, each more comically earnest than the one before.
Anyone's who's endured membership in a similar club will recognize the angst over which book the group should read next; the snooty member who wants to discuss Balzac and Hawthorne; the inevitable straying from the topic at hand: the book that half of the members didn't bother to finish reading. The bit about the Big Brother camera, which repeatedly catches characters misbehaving in pairs or as a group, is problematic, although it also helps explain the self-consciousness of its characters, each agreeably acted.
The six actors, especially Maclean, almost convince us that there is a better play lurking behind a lot of pleasant laughs and wizened punchlines — a largesse that's also true of The Cottage, an equally agreeable homage to all things Noel Coward.
Set in 1923 at a summer cottage in the English countryside, this crafty creampuff chugs along for the better part of an evening, never once nearing art but also never disappointing anyone looking for pleasant distraction. About a man and his sister-in-law who are having an affair, this mannered comedy about long-gone mores is neatly acted by — because this is traditional summer rep casting — the same ensemble who appear in The Book Club Play. If the slender plot's twists and turns are unsubtle, they're meant to be. Still, revealing them here would spoil half the fun of playwright Sandy Rustin Fleischer's frolic. The usual hiding-in-closets-from-angry-husbands shtick is lord-and-ladied over gleefully by Maclean and Kremer as the two naughty lovers.
Both plays are directed by artistic director Matthew Wiener, who should be lauded not only for delivering us from our doldrums with satisfying summer entertainment, but also for reviving his estimable playhouse for our benefit. Someone throw this man a rose.
The Book Club Play and The Cottage
continue on alternating weeks through August 17 at the Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, 1333 E. Washington St. Call 602-253-6701 or visit www.actorstheatre.org.