ONE MORE CHANGE of venue and John R. Gunn's local theatre troupe will qualify as a touring company. After closing their Millennium Theatre, housed at the old YWCA, Artistic Director Gunn and General Manager Sean Zackson resurfaced in February as CityPlayers Theatre. Now they have dissolved that non-profit organization and abandoned its ill-fated location in a noisy, cavernous former tire barn for a cozier space in South Tucson to create CityPlayers exp. (experimental) Studio Theatre.
The first production in the new location is Ivan Menchell's The Cemetery Club. The play debuted on Broadway in 1990 and was adapted by Menchell (who also writes for TV) into a movie starring Olympia Dukakis and Dianne Ladd in 1993. It follows three Jewish widows who, more or less devotedly, visit their late husbands' graves every month. There they update the dead on the latest gossip among their senior citizen social circle and hold one-sided conversations reminiscing about the past and lamenting their current loneliness.
However, a schism is developing between the long-time friends over this custom. Doris (Ina Shivack) remains utterly dedicated to the ritual for her late Abe. Lucille (Colleen Kelleher) who never had such a good marriage with Harry and who has become a notorious flirt to ease her pain, is ready to quit the visitations. In the middle is Ida (Bella Vivante). Despite her continuing pangs for Murray, she entertains thoughts that it might be time to start living again while she still can, instead of becoming a walking memorial like Doris.
Enter Sam (Jonathan Lawson), visiting the grave of his late wife, Myrna, on what would have been their 40th anniversary. They are not entirely strangers, since Sam is Doris' and Ida's local kosher butcher. He hooks up with the group, eyed desperately by Lucille, though he is attracted to Ida.
Sam and Ida begin dating and are perilously close to newfound happiness when Doris and Lucille, for their own selfish motives, take Sam aside and scuttle the budding romance. At what Ida thinks will be their first public occasion, Selma's latest wedding (a seemingly regular event on the social calendar), Sam shows up with a new date, Mildred (Peaches Guisinger). Back at Ida's after the affair, the tipsy trio begins a tell-all, where Doris spills the beans about their ill-fated intervention.
OK, so it sounds pretty grim. But along the way, The Cemetery Club remains a delightful comedy at heart. There are plenty of on-going jokes, such as the oft-wedded Selma, Lucille's hot-to-trot attitude and her penchant for bargain fur (which Doris unerringly prices), plus lots of Jewish humor and ethnic angst over what is proper. In a deft bit of writing, more than half of the characters in the play are repeatedly referenced but never seen, since most of them are dead. Despite only having five players, the audience gets the sense of this community, its mores, customs, loves and values, and especially its past.
Shivack and Lawson are utterly convincing in their characterizations. A native New Yorker, Shivack's accent and lilt is authentic and endearing. Her stage presence is so completely natural that there is never a feeling of her acting or having to think about how to stay in character. Lawson, who began his acting career in 1947, is well honed. His embarrassment, uncertainty and awkwardness trying to navigate the uneasy territory of senior-citizen dating are completely on target.
Vivante and Kelleher are also believable and competent, though their delivery and gestures seem slightly more calculated in comparison to Shivack and Lawson. In the opening scene, they are a little stilted for their characters being such old friends, but their comedic timing and rapport eventually coheres when Shivack, and especially Lawson, are added to the mix.
As the play turns more tragic towards the end, Kelleher displays a fine sense of drama as she confesses the emptiness of Lucille's life in an unexpected twist.
Guisinger, a legal secretary indulging her dream of being on stage, does a nice job in the walk-on role. Intentionally or not, she is a real life embodiment of the play's message of today's seniors actively living life.
Gunn's well-delineated multi-scene set suits the small space without feeling claustrophobic. The new theatre is in a former auto detailing and window tinting shop approximately 100 feet west of Sixth Avenue between Silverlake Road and 36th Street. The cozy space features very comfortable and well-padded movie theatre-style seats. The normal-height ceiling will require some creative staging by Gunn since there is little headroom left after installing the lights and rigging. But then creativity has always been Gunn's strength.
The Cemetery Club is the kind of bittersweet urbane comedy more likely associated with the offerings of the long-standing Invisible Theatre than the more experimental works Gunn has typically staged. Whether this indicates a change of direction towards more commercial efforts remains to be seen. The performance for last Sunday's matinee was sold out. Granted, the new theatre only has 26 seats, but that's still a bigger audience than some of Gunn's more adventurous works have drawn. If CityPlayers is still finding its niche and its audience, let's at least hope it has finally found a home.
The Cemetery Club, directed by John R. Gunn, continues through July 18 at CityPlayers exp. Studio Theatre, 37 W. 33rd Street. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays and 7:30 p.m. Mondays. Tickets are $11 general admission, with a $1 discount for seniors and students. Advance tickets are available at both Keuken Dutch Restaurants and the Emerald City Grille on Fourth Avenue. For reservations and more information, call 620-6099.