At Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, The Cemetery Club has gallows humor in spades while WaterTower hits a false note with Totally True Story
If it weren't for the fine quartet of older actresses in Contemporary Theatre of Dallas' current production of Ivan Menchell's The Cemetery Club, this sentimental sitcom of a play could easily be mistaken for Steel Magnolias: Golden Girls Edition. It's yet another gentle walk through love, death and the bonds of BFFs. But while Magnolias playwright Robert Harling made his female characters sound like gay men from Dixie filching witticisms from bitchy bumper stickers, Menchell's women come off as surprisingly authentic and affecting.
At least it feels that way as fine Dallas actresses Ouida White (as Ida), Nancy Sherrard (Lucille), Linda Comess (Doris) and Susan McMath Platt (Mildred) glide gracefully from the wacky antics into the quieter moments in a play that presents four Jewish widows in Forest Hills, Queens, as wise, funny and still engaged in sex and romance at 60.
The dead are already in the ground when The Cemetery Club begins. Every month Ida, Lucille and Doris meet for tea and take a field trip to their husbands' graves. Doris is the most recently bereaved, and she's far from finished with her grieving. Ida, still missing her husband of 40 years, might be ready to move on, though she still bakes Murray's favorite desserts just to keep busy. Bleached-blond Lucille is the wild one, flirting madly with every man in view, including potential muggers. She brags about cougar-esque conquests, but those stories, and her fetish for secondhand minks, might be camouflage for a lonely heart.
In scenes alternating between Ida's well-appointed living room (the neat-as-a-pin set is by Wade Giampa) and the leaf-strewn gravesites of their hubbies, the ladies do what ladies do in plays of this sort. They argue, needle, tease, reminisce and set each other up for pleasantly amusing zingers.
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"Did you get another bill for perpetual care?" Doris asks.
"When Blue Cross pays me for Harry being sick," Lucille snaps, "I'll pay the cemetery for Harry being dead."
Breaking up the hen party is Sam (played by H. Francis Fuselier), a widowed butcher who runs into the women when he comes to the graveyard to pay respects to his departed wife. Lucille latches on like a barnacle, but Sam is more taken by the demure Ida. When Sam makes a date with Ida to attend the wedding of the unseen and oft-married neighborhood gold-digger, Lucille and Doris do some harmful meddling.
The second act of The Cemetery Club turns these senior citizens into graying teenagers. Primping for the wedding, Lucille, Doris and Ida gossip and giggle like prom-goers as they wriggle into their red bridesmaid dresses and experiment with eye shadows. Latecomer Mildred, a simpering interloper in a queen-size silver brocade suit, turns up on the arm of Sam and sends the ladies into a hysterical tizz. Their tipsy return from the Champagne reception is high/low comedy as they stumble, tumble and barf their way through stories of how each met and married their now-deceased husbands.
Every predictable move in this G-rated affair is made palatable by Contemporary's wonderful cast, directed by Susan Sargeant. They certainly add heaps of charm to the cliché-ridden script. But what's nicest is seeing four veteran actresses get the chance to fill out fully formed characters instead of being relegated, as they usually are, to the supporting role of dotty grandma or wacky aunt. (Sherrard and Platt both have recently played wacky Aunt Dahlia in a Jeeves and Wooster comedy.)
Ouida White, who more often directs than acts these days, is a twinkly beauty as Ida. The way she expresses the first flush of her crush on Sam should be a lesson to everyone under 50 who fears that love will lose its zing after menopause. White reflects the jittery doubting phase of new romance, and then she bursts with relief as Sam says all the right things. It's very Something's Gotta Give.
Nancy Sherrard gets the broad comedy moments, and she wastes not a one. She also has to deliver the maudlin (but sweet) final speech at the grave of the character who dies unexpectedly. In a play called The Cemetery Club, you didn't think everyone would make it out alive, did you?
The old saw that advises writers to "write what you know" should be appended to include "but only if it's interesting." Gay comic book writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa achieves the first order, but not the second, with his autobiographical play Based on a Totally True Story, now onstage in the studio space at WaterTower Theatre in Addison.
In real life, Aguirre-Sacasa writes Spider-Man comics and is one of the new class of "hot young" playwright/screenwriters getting lots of buzz in the biz. Dallas Theater Center artistic director Kevin Moriarty recently tapped Aguirre-Sacasa to rewrite the book of the 1960s Adams-Strouse musical It's a Bird...It's a Plane...It's Superman, which will be given a big-budget production directed by Moriarty at the new Wyly Theatre in 2010.
Let's hope the musical gets off the ground better than Based on a Totally True Story, a leaden two-act comedy that never convinces that its characters or their relationships are anything but boilerplate creations loosely joined by commas and semicolons.
Aguirre-Sacasa renames himself Ethan Keene for the play. Ethan (played by Andrew Phifer) writes The Flash comics while also trying to polish and sell his first serious screenplay about a family touched by tragedy. On the day he finds out a studio might be optioning the script for Tom Hanks and/or Nicole Kidman, he meets and falls for Michael Sullivan (Beau Trujillo), a cute Village Voice arts reporter working on a profile of the annoyingly prolific Joyce Carol Oates. The guys check each other out with gay-code references to Equinox gym, New York Observer, Scissor Sisters and Anderson Cooper.
Roadblocks to happiness start with the ridiculous demands of Mary Ellen Eustice, the wife-half of a Hollywood producing couple (she's played with real comic grit, and in a great pair of black pumps, by the lovely Mary Anna Austin). In a series of phone calls—an awkward device for live theater dialogue—Mary Ellen convinces Ethan to pump horror movie tricks into his set-up and to cut familial conversation "because nobody talks anymore." It's the old "artist corrupted by movie money" trope that inevitably pops up in a play or film about screenwriters, from Sunset Boulevard to The Player.
Ethan's as morally weak as he is ambitious, so on his first trip to Los Angeles, he succumbs to the rippled abs of a taut and tawny actor (Jared Eaton). Confessions, arguments and a break-up with Michael follow. And as if this play needed another layer of dubious "but this really happened" plotting, Ethan's father (Barry Nash) ditches his marriage and moves in with his son.
Make a list of all the trite storytelling tricks so many of the "hot young" resort to and you'll find most of them here. Ethan talks directly to the audience. There are flashbacks and flash-forwards, with characters having to remind us and each other where they are in time. The production at WaterTower, directed by James Paul Lemons, also uses a modified PowerPoint slide show to establish settings. Palm trees for Los Angeles, a cartoon cheese-steak sandwich for Philadelphia.
Despite agreeable performances by Phifer, Nash and Austin, this Totally True Story hits too many false notes.
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