In the sixties, there was so much talk about Theater of the Absurd and Theater of Cruelty that it was easy to forget a genre that was crucial to New York for decades before and since, Theater of the Yenta. Ivan Menchell's "The Cemetery Club" may be a test of the potency of Theater of the Yenta.
Menchell's play, about three middle-aged widows who make a social event of visiting their husbands' graves together, is on the level of sitcom. I wouldn't be surprised to learn it was originally written as a TV pilot, which the networks had the good sense to reject.
TV shows, after all, can't survive on an audience of Yentas. Theater, alas, can. Leo Rosten, the leading authority on Yiddish infiltrating American speech, defines "yenta" as a gossipy woman, a blabbermouth. (To clarify, he identifies Proust as a yenta.)
Menchell's play is both about and for yentas. Thus it is not surprising that the audience laughs heartily at a line like "You sit back and watch [your grandchildren] do everything to your children your children did to you." Or: "At 76, who cares if he chases women? Dogs chase cars, but when they catch them, they can't drive."
The plot, such as it is, concerns an eligible widower courting one of the widows. The crises in their courtship could easily have been handled in a half-hour episode. The play runs 2 1/2.
Eileen Heckart plays the most brazen of the three, a sort of Graveside Golden Girl. She handles a role that consists largely of wisecracks with expected class. Doris Belack is very funny as the "second banana." Elizabeth Franz has to play the most dithery of the lot, a thankless task she performs creditably. (Lest you imagine the yentas in the audience are pushovers, the one in front of me, noting that Franz had played a Jewish mother in "Brighton Beach Memoirs," told her companion: "I felt the same thing with the Neil Simon play - she's so not Jewish.") Lee Wallace is a sympathetic suitor. Judith Granite is suitably abrasive as a potential rival for his hand.
John Lee Beatty conveys aspiring yenta tastes in his set design, and Pamela Berlin's direction mines the feeble humor skillfully. Nothing can save the play, however, when it turns serious. At that point, it digs its own shallow grave.
It was the 17th-century poet Andrew Marvell who wrote: "The grave's a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace." I was oddly reminded of this by Ivan Menchell's one-joke tragedy "The Cemetery Club," which opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theater last night.
It is a play to which I personally feel luke-cool (something warmer than cool, but cooler than lukewarm), but it is certainly within a genre of play that, say 30 years ago, in the days before TV sitcoms and cheapo movies of that same ilk, Broadway and most of its critics would probably have embraced. Today this grave comedy is likely to be regarded as more private than fine.
Three Jewish widows of a certain age are languishing in Forest Hills, Queens - meeting each month to go to the graves of their dear departed, while, with varying degrees of effort and success, trying to pick up the threads of their lives.
One of them, Lucille (Eileen Heckart), seems to be already enthusiastically dating - "playing the field," as she puts it - while Doris (Doris Belack) seems firmly locked in her past, whereas the youngest and prettiest of them, Ida (Elizabeth Franz), is uncertain, but generally reluctant to pass her last days alone.
On one visit to the cemetery they meet, of course, a Jewish widower, Sam (Lee Wallace), and the rest of the play, with the exception of one small touch of melodrama that may come as a surprise, is as predictable as a Florida sunset, or a fast-food menu.
Yet many in the audience can identify or at least empathize with the widows' plight and will even be able to recognize most of the jokes.
Such as: "At her last birthday when they brought out the cake with all the candles, four people passed out with the heat." Or: "I hope I look as good as you do at your age." "You did!"
Simple familiar stuff, about simple familiar people. A touch of Jewish humor here, a racy smidgen of innuendo there, a few touches of genuine feeling (mostly for Franz, but one biggie at the end for tough-egg Heckart) - the whole play passes in a corny mixture of sunshine, smiles and tears which is artistically despicable, but can still be found pleasing by many.
Personally, I didn't think it was really any worse than "Steel Magnolias" (although it lacks the accentuated Southern molasses charm that apparently beguiled so many of my innocent colleagues), and interestingly it has indeed been deftly directed by that same Pamela Berlin of "Steel Magnolias" fame - so presumably she, too, saw the familiarity.
The play is very decently acted in the correct "knock 'em dead" style demanded by its conventions. Heckart handles this kind of stuff to the manner born - she can even make a grotesquely feeble, limp, running joke about mink almost tolerable with her scandalized double takes - and Belack, vinegary and despairing, is also neatly on the button.
Wallace was also excellent, but he looks so disconcertingly like Ed Koch that I found myself constantly wondering whether our distinguished columnist had found himself yet another job.
Rising quite beautifully above the play - but not too far above - is Franz as the reluctant widow, as shy and giggly as a teen-age debutante, as vulnerable as a child in alien clover. I saw the play at its final preview matinee, with a paying audience that really seemed to enjoy it - there was genuine laughter there that no producers' claque could fake.
It is perhaps primarily a matinee play - I would give nothing but afternoon performances, with morning shows on Wednesday and Sunday, with Saturday dark. With luck, the play might thus find an audience. But I fear these Golden Girls are about 30 years too late. The heat from their candles might be too much.
If you believe that one good reason for going to the theater is to escape television sitcoms, you may not be tickled to end up at ''The Cemetery Club,'' the new attraction at the Brooks Atkinson. From its peppy canned theme music to its final-scene sermonizing, this comedy about three Jewish widows in Forest Hills, Queens, is ''Golden Girls'' at four times the length but with at most one-fourth the star wattage. Moving at the leisurely pace of a contentious canasta hand, ''The Cemetery Club'' could be one of the best arguments yet advanced for cremation.
The author, Ivan Menchell, follows the time-honored rules of his chosen genre: he gives his middle-class senior citizens as many toilet, sexual and anatomical one-liners as he can. Lucille (Eileen Heckart), the randiest of the ladies, sets the evening's tone with her early declaration that ''You don't buy a mink because you need it; you buy support hose because you need it.'' Doris (Doris Belack), the pill of the group, issues loud periodic bulletins like ''I'm going to the bathroom!'' and ''Oy, am I going to have gas!'' The good-hearted Ida (Elizabeth Franz), suffering from a hangover, opens one scene by rushing offstage to vomit.
To stitch these merry episodes together, Mr. Menchell has concocted a story in which the women's so-called cemetery club, a chatty monthly reunion at their beloved husbands' graves, is disrupted by the intrusion of Sam (Lee Wallace), a widower with an eye for Ida. A few misunderstandings, jealous spats, drunken confessions and yahrzeit candles later, order is restored. By then, Ida has delivered the inevitable bit of sentimental boilerplate, ''For the first time since Murray died, I felt alive!'' and everyone has gotten to dance the cha-cha and eat a little chopped liver.
What's objectionable, as opposed to merely tedious, about Mr. Menchell's writing is the sanctimony in which it cloaks its vulgarity. Not unlike Robert Harling's ''Steel Magnolias'' - with which it shares its director, Pamela Berlin - ''The Cemetery Club'' purports to be championing its women's independence even as it alternately patronizes and humiliates them. The play's climax involves the removal of a wig (a stunt also used in the much higher camp of ''Lettice and Lovage'') and a drink-tossing cat fight. When Mr. Menchell, again echoing ''Steel Magnolias,'' tries to retrieve his seriousness of purpose in Act II by sending a fresh corpse to the grave, the tear-jerking announcement of this untimely passing rings so false that it draws nearly as many titters as the wisecracks about unveilings, perpetual gravesite care and going into remission.
The staging is sluggish, with Ms. Belack's yenta, Ms. Franz's sugary born-again coquette and Mr. Wallace's blandly affable suitor doing nothing to erase one's fond memories of such archetypes as Molly Picon, Gertrude Berg and Sam Levene. The sterling Ms. Heckart has been given especially unflattering (and, for some reason, Day-Glo-hued) costumes by the designer Lindsay W. Davis and must at one point wear a blond wig and florid makeup befitting a Carol Channing impersonator. But such handicaps, let alone the stalled zingers in the script, cannot derail this comedienne's withering sarcasm and impeccable timing. She also is free to smoke in every scene - Ms. Heckart's gravelly voice is no put-on - and at one point she gets to stub out a butt on a tomb.
Such other laughs as there are come from the truly hideous scenery provided by the gifted John Lee Beatty, who seems to be having a giggle at the production's expense. Not only has he given Ida a vast living room of surpassingly realistic drabness, from the ersatz Chagall lithographs on the wall to a towering breakfront crammed with china, but he has also provided a cemetery whose backdrop pictures the cheerless ruins of the Flushing World's Fair as seen through a smoggy haze. During the set changes, the tombstones make such a commotion marching on and off stage that not even the audience is permitted to rest in peace.