Monday, April 20, 2009
Theater Review: The Cemetery Club
Despite a few moments of genuine feeling here and there, there's not much else to take home.
Ivan Menchell's The Cemetery Club played to a nearly sold out house on Saturday evening at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas's unconventional but attractive performance space on Sears St. in Dallas. Though problematic performances did little to improve a weak script, production values are commendable and Saturday night's audience enjoyed an evening of laughs and even a few surprises.
The Cemetery Club plays almost like an exercise in playwriting, answering the question, "What would happen if Steel Magnolias met The Golden Girls in Brooklyn?" Ida (Ouida White), Lucille (Nancy Sherrard), and Doris (Linda Comess) are three Brooklyn widows who meet once a month to visit their husbands' graves. Problems arise when each of them begins to take widowed life in a different direction; one clings to her husband's memory, another finds a potential love interest, and a third just wants to "play the field." The play is comedic, to be sure, relying heavily on one-line gags and playful zingers. Then, of course, there's the obligatory dramatic turn, meant to tug at the heart strings but not take up so much time as to ruin the fun. In the end, though it amuses, The Cemetery Club is a bit formulaic and has few, if any, new or interesting elements to offer.
The runaway performances, interestingly enough, belong to the actors playing the smaller roles. As love interest Sam, H. Francis Fuselier gives the most honest performance of the evening. Fuselier offers a charming combination of awkwardness and sweet appeal, and his dialect work is the strongest on the stage. As the romantic rival Mildred (so small a role it almost constitutes a cameo), Susan McMath Platt brings a commanding energy to the stage with a slightly but appropriately over-the-top characterization.
The lead actors do some honest work, but they also present some problems. White may or may not have had a cold on Saturday night, but her voice lacked the strength to carry the play. At times, as she tried to yell up the stairs or into the kitchen, her voice seemed unwilling to cooperate and uncomfortably strained. Ida is a gentle character, but she is at the center of the story - White, however, is overpowered vocally by the other actors.
The primary problem with the three primary performances was the dialect work. Though White and Comess occasionally come close, Sherrard slips up often enough for her dialect to distract. All three have difficulty with pronunciation, timing, and consistency; the result is that they play at the characters for most of the evening, rarely dipping below the surface and the stereotype. Luckily, Saturday night's audience enjoyed the humor and each of the actors found fairly poignant moments to work with towards the end of the second act.
The production also receives help from well-realized designs. Wade J. Giampa's set is nicely put together, offering a comfortable and attractive Brooklyn living room with high attention to detail; the set dressing alone (photos on the wall, knickknacks on tables and shelves) does much to humanize the story. Aaron Patrick Turner's costumes are generally low-key, though he does take a few opportunities to go appropriately just over the top. The only questionable choice is a fur coat that doesn't read as real - not a huge problem, really, until a matching item is later identified as a fake in contrast. Tristan Decker's lighting design is subtle but effective, and Tish Mussey's props blend quite nicely.
At the end of the evening, CTD's The Cemetery Club certainly leaves the audience with the sense of having been entertained, though not completely so. Despite a few moments of genuine feeling here and there, there's not much else to take home. It's an earnest attempt, but dialect problems and a lackluster script detract from the authenticity the actors seem perfectly capable of achieving, and we are left with somewhat two dimensional characters acting out a paint-by-numbers story.
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