Ivan Menchell’s breezy American-Jewish comedy The Cemetery Club is perhaps best known in its 1993 film incarnation which starred Ellen Burstyn, Olympia Dukakis and Dianne Ladd. Stepping into the shoes of these venerable Hollywood dames in Therry’s production of Menchell’s play are Julie Quick, Pam O’Grady and Penni Hamilton-Smith. All three turn in fine performances as the widowed New Yorkers who make up the titular club: Quick as the level-headed Ida, O’Grady as the glamorous Lucille and Hamilton-Smith as the burdened Doris. Each month, the charismatic trio visit their husbands’ graves as they attempt to readjust to life as single women, with varying degrees of enthusiasm for a return to ‘playing the field’. Lucille, caked in make-up and swathed in furs, is the keenest, flirtatious to the point of desperation in a bid, perhaps, to overcome the painful memory of her adulterous husband. Ida is altogether more cautious, sensible and self-protective although, unlike the browbeaten Doris, open to new romance. Ida’s opportunity comes in the form of Sam Katz (John Greene), a butcher who visits the same Queens cemetery as the Club in order to pay his respects to his deceased wife.
The play itself, though witty and adroitly plotted, lacks surprises and its success is largely dependent on the chemistry between its three female leads. It is here that The Cemetery Club delivers: Quick, O’Grady and Hamilton-Smith convince utterly as long-time friends, their easy banter and carelessly-traded barbs suitably brisk and free-flowing. Their comic timing is consistently good, as are their New York-Jewish accents. Less successful is Greene who works hard to evince Katz’s likeability but struggles with the accent. Julia Whittle impresses in the minor role of Mildred, Katz’s one-time date, but the play belongs to its three leads and also, it must be said, to a fourth woman, Loriel Smart, whose direction throughout is excellent. Her touches shine through mostly in the performances (unsurprising perhaps, considering her acting roots) but also, equally strikingly, in her ability to balance the play’s undemanding humour with its occasional but resonant darker turns. The first act is overlong but Smart’s direction and the confidence of Quick, O’Grady and Hamilton-Smith ensure that the pace is always brisk; a necessary thing in a comedy which, like its protagonists, is starting to show its age. The multi-level stage design, by Patsy Thomas and Stanley Tuck, is impressive and the transitions from the living room in Ida’s house to the cemetery, although sometimes a little sluggish, are effective.
The Cemetery Club received a rapturous reception from its opening night audience and its light charms will no doubt be warmly received by Therry’s mature fan base throughout the season. It’s a fun and focused production and Menchell’s script, with its classically self-effacing American-Jewish witticisms and Neil Simon-ish one-liners, succeeds in making death light without making light of death. In the end, the play counsels us all to learn to let the past go and to make the most of what lies in front, and not behind, us. Enough, as Ida might say, already.
An edited version of this review appeared in dB Magazine.