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'Cemetery Club' is worthy member of female ensemble comedy club

“The Golden Girls.” “Designing Women.” “9 to 5.” “Steel Magnolias.” “The First Wives Club.” “Living Single.” “Sex and the City.” “Girls.”

And better late than never, “The Cemetery Club.”

I’ve never heard of Ivan Menchell’s 1990 play, nor the 1993 film adaptation starring Olympia Dukakis, Ellen Burstyn and Diane Ladd. It has never come across my radar, however active my radar for female ensemble comedies is. (It is.) They entertain, yes, with fearless humor and timeless wit, but they also represent political agendas about gender, sex and representation — all matters that still need addressing. Thank you, ladies, for having the conversation.

A production of Menchell’s comedy opened at O’Connell & Company on April 20. It echoes a lot of what’s lovable about its sister plays, shows and films. (It predates a few of them, too.) It avoids politics, but it does speak to a matter we Americans (of any gender) have yet to acknowledge: the grieving process.

Three older girlfriends in Queens meet once a month to visit their husband’s graves. It’s a club, a sort of “Last Wives Club.” Each is in a different state of widowhood. Like sisters, they argue, they tease, they laugh. Their conflict is in accepting “the right way” to mourn a major loss. This right way doesn’t exist, of course. They project their own fears and sadness onto each other, and ultimately — spoiler alert — arrive at an understanding. Structurally, it’s as formulaic as a sitcom episode (a two-hour sitcom episode). You know where it’s heading as soon as it begins. It’s still a fun ride.

The great Anne Gayley plays Ida, the congenial leader of the pack who hosts pre-cemetery coffee; she’s a Rose. Joy Scime is Doris, a sarcastic cynic who’s still in mourning over her husband’s death four years prior; she’s a Dorothy. Constance Caldwell is the vivacious Lucille, whose wandering eye and mink adornments keep her warm at night; she’s a Blanche. (They’re all a Sophia.)

Each actor has her strengths in this ensemble, some more than others. They don’t make chemistry together the way you might like. Sitting around a coffee table feels distant and forced, as if they’re sharing a waiting room. Director Sheila McCarthy’s awkward staging (on a long, awkward stage) creates some confusion. I spent some of the first act trying to imagine them as true friends. Too often they appear to anticipate each other’s next lines, rather than responding to them. Granted, the reason for their visits is at least partially somber, but their camaraderie is not always convincing either.

The most genuine scene work belongs to Gayley and fellow widower Sam, played by Rob Schwartz, the spitting image of a future-Ray Romano. These two are just adorable together. I’ve not seen a romantic charge like this on stage in a long time. It’s innocent, and wise, and warm, and suspenseful. I wish they had their own play.

Gayley is a pro at these kinds of spontaneous emotions, of being in the moment. She holds a lot of this together. Scime is an obvious choice for Doris, and hits it out of the park. She doesn’t oversell her sarcasm, like Bea Arthur often did. It’s a smart performance. Deborah A. Krygier makes a brief but impressive appearance as Mildred, whose identity I’ll keep secret for the sake of dramatic tension.

Caldwell is an outlier, though. I’m inclined to point out that she’s too young to be playing this role; she’s playing it too young. Lucille has a young spirit, yes; Caldwell’s got that down. But there’s little difference between her performative public self, the one who lures in new widowers at the cemetery, and the honest self she’d share with her closest girlfriends around a couch. Her choice of New Yawk accent is also inconsistent and inauthentic, a huge distraction.

Menchell’s material lets even the best of this cast down at times. It’s dated, some 27 years after the fact. But when it works, it’s worth the visit.


“The Cemetery Club” by Ivan Menchell

2.5 stars (out of 4)

O’Connell & Company, in residence at The Park School of Buffalo, 4625 Harlem Road, Amherst

Runs through May 21, 7:30 p.m. Thurs.–Sat., 2:30 p.m. Sunday

Tickets available by phone, online or at the box office. Tickets: $15 to $30, 848-0800

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