A book club, backyard gardens. Karen Zacarías’s plays start with the simplest situations but build in layers of complexity and a lot of laughter for surprisingly memorable drama. Zacarías, one of the nation’s most produced playwrights this year, is seeing two of her comedies staged in the area right now: “The Book Club Play” at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre (through Oct. 13) and “Native Gardens” at Gloucester Stage Company (through Oct. 20).
“I like to play with archetypes and assumptions,” says Zacarías, who received her master’s in creative writing at Boston University. A native of Mexico, she now lives with her family in Washington, D.C., where she is playwright-in-residence at Arena Stage.
“In both a book club and a backyard, you draw down to a small moment and then watch it quickly escalate into bigger emotions and ideas.”
“The Book Club Play” explores the phenomenon that is American book clubs.
“So many people have either participated in book clubs or know someone who has,” Zacarías says. “It’s a wonderful study of group dynamics.”
The book club in the BPT production includes several old friends, a co-worker, and a newcomer who disrupts the careful balance that’s been created among them. Zacarías amps up the tension by having the meetings videotaped for a documentary that a filmmaker is creating. With the book club members aware of the filming, the audience serves as voyeurs, a la “The Office,” creating a mix of cringe-worthy and hilarious moments while the characters “perform” for the camera and then are caught in their most vulnerable moments.
The books the participants choose and the conversations those books inspire offer surprising insights into the readers: the egocentric book club founder Ana (a hilariously neurotic Becca A. Lewis); her husband, Rob (Sean Patrick Gibbons), who attends for the food; their best friend from college, William (a wonderfully measured Greg Maraio); friend Jen (Meredith Gosselin); Ana’s younger work colleague Lily (Rachel Cognata); and newcomer Alex (Anthony Goes). Boston favorite Brooks Reeves plays a series of pundits who comment on the proceedings.
“I had to choose titles audiences would be familiar with,” says Zacarías, “so they wouldn’t feel they were missing out on the jokes.”
Starting with “Moby-Dick,” the group wades through a crazy range of novels until “The Da Vinci Code” leads to an unexpected personal breakthrough for one character and a meltdown for another.
In Gloucester, “Native Gardens” opens with new neighbors sharing a love for creating pleasant, bucolic spaces in their adjacent backyards, but when the property line turns out to be in error, issues of ageism, classicism, racism, and isolationism all move front and center.
Patrick Shea and Leigh Strimbeck play the older, established neighbors, while Alaina Fragoso and Eduardo Ruiz play the new neighbors who are starting a family next door. While the script has them dip into stereotypes, the charm of Shea and Strimbeck makes these characters lovable.
“An argument with a neighbor can be so upsetting and disturbing,” says Zacarías, “but by framing it in a comedy, I can be sly and subversive and introduce the topic of a wall without anyone getting defensive.”
Zacarías says she deliberately set the action in a sitcom-style setup — she even has a character say “this episode could have ended differently” — because she wanted audiences to have a certain comfort level as the characters begin talking about difficult topics.
“It’s too easy to label characters as heroes or villains,” she says. “You have to love them all to be willing to go on the journey with them.”
Not to be missed
While the reliable midsize theater companies in Boston often produce great work, this month’s eye-catching productions are refreshingly offbeat — either in their location or their subject matter.
■ The Afterglow @ Oberon series celebrates its fifth season of bringing cutting-edge work to Cambridge, opening with “The Martha Graham Cracker Cabaret” this week ($25, www.americanrepertorytheater.org). Besides measuring an impressive 6 feet, 7 inches in heels, drag queen Martha, in her sparkly satin and Spandex gowns, is unapologetically hairy.
“I like the strange confusion of combining something masculine and something feminine for a devil-may-care attitude toward gender,” she says. “But it’s also a combination of a deluded grand dame who is both hilarious and sad.”
Martha is backed by a tight, four-piece band. The result is a cabaret act with personal anecdotes, comments on current events, and a wide repertoire of songs ranging from a raucous number from Pink to an introspective ballad from Billie Holiday. The band performs its own interpretations of familiar songs, including a gospel version of the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out.”
“I make a plan, and the music is well-rehearsed, but when I arrive onstage, I throw it all away and ride the energy of the audience,” Martha says. “I’m a big flirt, but you flirt with different people differently. I love responding to the audience and changing emotional gears as needed. Sometimes the most ridiculous figure can also break your heart.”
■ At the Plaza Black Box Theatre at Boston Center for the Arts, Elliot Norton Award-winning director Bryn Boice turns her talent to Edgar Allan Poe’s macabre penchant for “the death of a beautiful woman” in the devised theater piece “My Fascination With Creepy Ladies” (Oct. 17-Nov. 3, www.bostontheatrescene.com, $26). Boyce and the Anthem Theatre Company will dramatize several of Poe’s horror stories and poems, including the favorites “Annabel Lee,” “The Raven,” and other, lesser-known works, and connect them to Poe’s likely inspiration, the experience of watching both his mother and his young wife battle consumption.
“His past, his innate sense of darkness, and his pain informed his work, and we are set to peel back the layers of those experiences with these stories,” says Boice, who was recently named associate artistic director of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company.
■ The always inventive Moonbox Productions presents “The Rocky Horror Show” in a pop-up theater in Harvard Square (Oct. 17-Nov. 2, www.moonboxproductions.org, $25-$50). The musical comedy follows sweethearts Brad and Janet as they lose their innocence when a flat tire leads them to the castle of Dr. Frank N. Furter. The musical was turned into a 1975 film that has become a midnight-movie cult classic. The Moonbox production takes a creative approach to the storefront space.
Fans can do the “Time Warp” at 25 Brattle St., the former location of Hidden Sweets. Ticket purchasers are forewarned: This is an interactive show. To avoid contact with actors, choose “actor-free” seating zones.Terry Byrne can be reached at [email protected].