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DARK TIMES, BIG LAUGHS: Three friends face life after death in ‘The Cemetery Club’

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Kinda like “The Golden Girls” gone Jewish.

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TheatreNOW follows up their incredible production of “Killer Diller” with a dark comedy about life after death. Specifically, it’s about life for those left behind after their loved one dies. Readers might remember Ivan Menchell’s “The Cemetery Club” from 1993’s movie, starring Olympia Dukakis, Ellen Burstyn and Diane Ladd.

TheatreNOW’s production follows the lives of three friends, Ida (Marie Chonko), Lucille (Kathy Cagney) and Doris (Elizabeth Michaels), who have known each other all their adult lives. Now that all three are widowed, they visit the cemetery together every month. It is almost like a Goldilocks scenario: Lucille has responded to widowhood by throwing herself full force in manic dating and shopping. Doris is the ultimate prude who seems to feel life should cease and every day forward should only be a memorial to the dearly departed. Situated somewhere in the middle is Ida, who genuinely misses her departed Murray, but acknowledges there is still life to be lived, cookies to be baked and dances to dance. While on their monthly pilgrimage to the graveyard, they encounter their friendly, neighborhood butch, Sam (James Bowling). Sam and Ida have an attraction to each other, which drives both Lucille and Doris crazy. Lucille is jealous that Sam would be interested in Ida when she is right there and perfectly available. Doris just cannot fathom Ida could possibly consider the idea of dating. (Wasn’t her marriage perfect? Why would she need that?)

To be honest, I couldn’t help but root for Chonko. I really wanted joy and happiness for her. Her Ida is a very reasonable, friendly, loving person, who is trying to navigate each new day of life the best she can.

By comparison, the pain and anger Michaels’ Doris wears as armor makes it hard  to sympathize with—though her friends try. She is terrified if she unbends from her tightly strung place of grief, the entire world as she knows it will crash around her.

Lucille is sort of like Blanche Devereaux from “The Golden Girls”: boy-crazy, shopping and sharp-tonged but with a heart of gold. Needless to say, she is a lot of fun.

Into all this wanders poor, unsuspecting Sam. Bowling’s physical communication speaks volumes and really makes the escalating situation compelling. Doris and Lucille meddle a bit, and through an odd series of events, the four of them go to a wedding in the same car with Sam’s date, Mildred (Linsey McGrath). McGrath’s Mildred has the irritating laugh of that other third wheel, Gertie Cummings from “Oklahoma!” Bowling has Curly’s wince every time he hears it. Poor thing, it’s not her fault no one told her what was going on. But McGrath plays the moment and ups the ante on tension for everyone.

And there I was, silently rooting for Ida. (Please, let it work out for her! Please!)

Though the characters are Jewish (it is mentioned twice in the show), the humor is not the matzah-ball schmaltz that would be an easy go-to. instead audiences get humor of a lifetime of friendship and the eternal issue of … “the triangle.” The triangle of friendship, the triangle of romance, and possibly more complicating, the triangle between a new boyfriend and old friends. How to maneuver all of this? 

The performances are really great and without much fanfare going through the motions of visiting a Jewish cemetery, where visitors leave a rock by a grave instead of flowers. It is nicely and tastefully done. Of course there is humor and great laughing, too. In addition, there is a comic element added to the production: the scene changes are epic in scope and have almost an entire plot line of their own, accompanied by a soundtrack that takes innuendo in a new direction. 

While mulling over the problem of Ida’s romance, there is a feast that will knock off the audience’s socks. Frankly, my Jewish mother would be offended if there weren’t one to accompany this show. Chef Gordon begins the night with “Nosh-o’s” or Lox meets nachos—salmon, cream cheese sauce and chives over warm tortilla chips. I’m not kidding. I could eat that three meals a day and die a happy person.

Gordon also offers up sweet-potato latkes (potato pancakes) that are way lighter and more delectable than any latke I have ever met. (This is not the oily food of Hanukkah but rather a latke for all other days.)

My pasta-loving, comfort food-driven personality devoured the pesto and vegetable pasta. The balance of pasta with veggies was perfect and the goat cheese melted perfectly for a smooth and luxurious blend.

But guilty pleasures aside, it was the coconut Jasmine rice I later dreamed about. It accompanied wahoo with a sweet-and-sour sauce and vegetable medley that was a perfect storm of flavors and textures. And the rice? How was it so fluffy yet still stuck together? Mine never does that. Humph.

The script is funny and heartwarming and the performers really bring it to life. They seem encumbered by an over abundance of set pieces and props they don’t really need. Their abilities are such that the excessive and extensive set almost becomes surperfluous.

With a couch and a chair, these four could build that world and entertain for hours.

The Cemetery Club
TheatreNOW • 19 S. 10th St.
May 12-27, Fri.-Sat., at 7 p.m.
Show Only: $18
Adult Dinner Ticket: $40

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