By Jenn McKee
To sell a play about friendship, the actors ultimately have to – if you’ll forgive the cliche – have the right chemistry. Their energy has to build on each other so that not only do we believe in their deep and abiding bond, but we also enjoy our time with them, as though we are a virtual, silent, additional friend.
Tipping Point Theatre’s production of Ivan Menchell’s “The Cemetery Club” features a leading ensemble that has that chemistry down; what they lack is a script that feels like more than an occasionally funny, warmed-over sitcom.
Set in the Queens apartment of a Jewish widow named Ida (Julia Glander), “Cemetery” tells the story of a three-way friendship at a crossroads. Doris (Connie Cowper) is a devoted widow with no interest in finding new love; Lucille (Sandra Birch) is a loud, bargain-loving, man-hungry widow who wants to stop looking back to the past; and Ida is ready, after losing her husband two years before, to venture back into dating.
When Ida runs into Sam (Thomas D. Mahard), a local butcher, they pursue a relationship, but the way is anything but smooth.
Beth Torrey directs the show with an eye toward really anchoring it in the women’s friendship and the complications that arise when that triumvirate is threatened. An extended scene when the women are drunk, after coming home from a wedding, is a highlight.
And spending time with these women is often fun, thanks to the actresses’ unbridled performances. But the play itself feels bloated at two hours; the play’s stakes just don’t feel that high. And too much along the way rings predictable and familiar: The women rib each other about lying about their age, and how, if you don’t like being alone, get a dog, not a man; Lucille repeatedly makes the others guess how much she paid for various clothing items; and sometimes, the schmaltz runs painfully thick (one secret is screamed mid-argument, followed by violent weeping, for instance).
Lucille, being the extroverted vixen of the trio, gets the lion’s share of funny lines and moments, and Birch cashes them in with deliciously playful zest. Cowper, meanwhile, effectively straddles the line between a sanctimonious goody-two-shoes and a well-intentioned, good-hearted angel on Ida’s shoulder. Brenda Lane brings a much-appreciated bolt of new energy to the production when her character makes a surprise arrival (I won’t say more at the risk of ruining the surprise); and Mahard’s Sam is a man we want to like, but come to doubt.
Ultimately, though, the show hinges on Ida and her personal journey, and Glander’s performance is a knockout. From tentatively tiptoeing toward courtship, to drunkenly commiserating with girlfriends – and then being struck speechless in the face of tragedy – Glander makes you root, and ache, for Ida.
Gwen Lindsay designed the set, which features a strip that represents the cemetery upstage, and, on the main area of the stage, Ida’s living room, furnished with Lindsay’s props. Shelby Newport created the show’s costumes (the bridesmaid dresses seemed particularly spot-on). Joel Klein lights the show with sensitivity, and Quintessa Gallinat’s sound design nicely underscores the show’s emotional tones.
Yet sadly, thanks to Menchell’s “meh” script, you’ll likely find yourself merely paying your respects at this “Cemetery.”
‘The Cemetery Club’
Tipping Point Theatre, 361 E. Cady St., Northville. Thursday-Sunday through June 17, plus Wednesday, May 23. $26-$30. 248-347-0003. http://www.tippingpointtheatre.com