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Weekend of surprises lands in local theaters

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As I approach my first anniversary as reviewer of community theater productions for the TimesLedger Newspapers, I continue to, at least when it comes to community theater, expect the unexpected. Although there are names and groups whom I have come to regard with utmost dependability, I still have to admit that “surprise” is so often in store when I walk into a local theater.

This past year has been full of surprises, usually for the better. For example, who would have thought it possible to mount “Rebecca” on a stage as small as a modest living room? But Theatre à la Carte did it — on a most grand scale visually and dramatically! Who would have thought an umpteenth production of a Neil Simon play would keep me awake. But Beari Productions’ “I Ought to Be in Pictures” kept me riveted for two hours. Who would think a local group could present a convincing on-stage death struggle. Theatre Time’s “Dial M for Murder” left me emotionally drained after that famous death struggle scene, even though I knew what was going to happen.

This past weekend held its share of surprises as well. Who would think that any production focused around widows visiting their husbands’ gravesites would be anything but morbid? Yet “The Cemetery Club,” presented by Douglaston Community Theatre in the first weekend of its three-weekend run, was nothing less than an absolute delight. Who would think that a production of “My Fair Lady,” my absolute favorite musical, done by almost any group could be anything but diverting and charming. Yet my friend Bette and I sat through a performance of “My Fair Lady” last Saturday by a rather esteemed group that was at best a crashing bore.

Douglaston Community Theatre: The Cemetery Club

Is it just coincidental that Douglaston Community Theater (DCT) — located at the edge of the cemetery of the historic Zion Episcopal Church — has focused its entire recent season of three productions on things lethal? As laugh-filled as they attempted to make their fall production of Agatha Christie’s “The Hollow,” there was no mistaking two gruesome on-stage deaths. Their starry-eyed winter production of “Death Takes a Holiday” wove the elements of comedy, romance, and melodrama to present a most timely, philosophical view of the meaning of death — or rather of life.

And their current spring production, which opened last Friday, Ivan Menchell’s bittersweet comedy-drama, “The Cemetery Club,” also deals with mortality. And like “Death Takes a Holiday,” it is a complete joy, from start to finish — beautifully conceived and executed (oops!) for a most delightful theatrical adventure.

Queens residents should take this play to heart, since it’s author is a born-and-raised Queens boy himself, with settings and references to familiar borough locales. The story may be familiar to some from the Ellyn Burstyn/Olympia Dukakis film — a film that was nowhere near as charming a concoction as the original play, especially in DCT’s production in the hands of director Linda Hanson. Put aside the self-indulgent acting and precious procrastinations of the film because Hanson focuses on the earthy moment — living each minute for its zestful best, with a backward glance to the loved ones and joys that have gone ahead.

Hanson’s production is vividly paced, with a jaunty rhythm to the dialogue and the entrances and exits that makes the play whiz by seemingly in minutes. The excellent cast boasts a trio of fine actresses who richly express the contrasting moods of loneliness, expectation, romance and survival, filling every moment with emotion and sincerity. Indeed, it is the terse, irreverent, touchingly human interplay between the three widows, Ida (Marty Dzioba), Lucille (Annette Daiell) and Doris (Karen Schlachter) that is the basis of this play. Without the finely hewn performances of three actresses such as these, “The Cemetery Club” can be as deadly as its name suggests.

Each lady was an ideal projection of a particular way people deal with the loss of a spouse. The show stealer for me was Daeill’s Lucille, a sassy dame who flirts and curses with the best of them, yet has elegance and charm to spare from the moment she entered modeling her new coat. She is a woman of creature comfort, determined not to let her husband’s death be the end of her life. Gradually we begin to understand that her breezy, materialistic outlook is a façade that covers great pain. Her moving soliloquy at the play’s end was harrowing, a tribute to this fine actress’s gifts of reaching out to her audience.

As Ida, Dzioba communicated a tender fragility — in her delivery, her expressive eyes, her gestures, and even her accent. Ida is the pivot point upon which the extremes of the other two widows are balanced. It is no surprise that she is the one most likely to move on with her life, even through the difficulties of new relationships. So beautifully poised between comedy and moving drama is her scene with her newfound love, Sam.

Schlachter’s Doris is perhaps the most idiomatic of the widows. The rhythm of the language, the expressions, and the humor of this piece has the brisk ring of New York Jewish at its core. And in this Schlachter was completely comfortable, not only in the winning use of language, but the total personality she created on stage. Doris is so close to her dead husband that she cannot fathom the ability of the others to suggest creating new lives with new spouses. Interesting, how I could feel her presence in the final scene, even though she was not on stage.

It is a tribute to the abilities of these fine actresses that I could sense their husbands’ being with them as they recounted memories of Abe, Murray, and Harry, or wondered what “the boys” were doing right now. And of course, the playful banter about which husband died one year before the other or four years ago was handled with such ease that I could not help but laughing out loud.

Into their lives comes their dream man, Sam the Butcher, a widower who visits the same cemetery, purportedly to grieve over his late wife’s grave. Although the movie had a rather dashing Danny Aiello in the role, the role is uniquely recreated in the DCT production by Michael Wolf to fit his talents like a glove. Bombastic in manner, hulking in size, brooding and childlike one moment, ardent and petulant the next, Wolf’s Sam was a joy to watch. The great timing displayed in his difficult romantic scene with Ida made the moment the poignant highlight of the play, more painfully so when he apparently betrays Ida by taking another woman on a date.

The cast was rounded out by Susan Schwartz as Mildred, Sam’s date, whose untimely arrival seems to pull the plug on the Ida-Sam romance. Schwartz, who possesses a radiant smile, deserves praise creating a remarkably complete, sexy character in the short scene the author provides her.

A word of praise too for the unique way in which the Douglaston production solves the difficulty of the dual scenes — that is, Ida’s living room and the cemetery. In a larger performing space these scenes could be relegated to different sections of the stage, or to a revolving stage. Douglaston’s production, under the knowing eyes of set designers Ed Dzioba and Ed Indelicato, has a scrim located on a platform midway about Ida’s living room. So what appears to be a rather unsightly living room curtain at the beginning of the play melts away, in Scene Two, to reveal the cemetery. Neat job!

I heartily recommend this production, even to those — who several members of the audience last Saturday night — seem to express an uneasiness about a play that can touch so close to home. Ultimately, “The Cemetery Club,” is an uplifting, glowing experience that should not be missed. Additional performances are over the next two weekends, Fridays and Saturdays only, May 9, 10, 16, 17 at 8 p.m. Douglaston Community Theatre is located at Zion Episcopal Church, 44th Avenue off Douglaston Parkway, around the corner from two fine restaurants, for excellent Italian and Thai fare, as well as a cozy, upscale cafe/bar to round out your night out.

Heights Players (Brooklyn Heights): My Fair Lady

I have seen and commented glowingly about a number of recent productions of the Heights Players in historic Brooklyn Heights. This fearless group stages nine productions a year, having previously mounted in just this year alone “Camelot,” “Anatomy of a Murder,” “Come Blow Your Horn,” “Heaven Can Wait” and “I Remember Momma,” among others. The thought of capping off this year with “My Fair Lady” has filled me with warm expectation since I read their roster for the year, for indeed, I really do love “My Fair Lady.”

I am not the biggest fan of musicals in general. Unlike my friend Bette, who cannot get enough of them, I find most musicals slight on plot and find local productions tend to stress the music over the story and character development. I am also wary of trying to squeeze Broadway production values, large-sized choruses, and credible choreography onto local stages with local casts. Each chorus member has to shine, easy enough on Broadway when actors are being paid to do small parts, but not so easy in small local productions — where casting a chorus is probably a nightmare unto itself

My particular fondness for “My Fair Lady” is the literary brilliance of the script, a marvel of adaptation by Alan J. Lerner from Bernard Shaw’s great play. In one of my former courses in 19th century British literature, I assigned my pupils a text that had Shaw’s original “Pygmalion” and Lerner’s adaptation in the same volume. And what a revelation a comparison of the pieces is.

And what great characters this musical play is filled with. What a complex character Henry Higgins is — self-centered, misogynistic, self-righteous to the core — the perfect protagonis­t/antagonist in one. What a well-developed story of interaction between Higgins and his protégé, the far-from-simple-minded Liza Doolittle. Their battle of wills, each trying to recreate the other, is a battle of the sexes unequaled by any, other than perhaps “The Taming of the Shrew.” And then, of course, there is that incredible music weaving throughout the whole.

The production at the Heights Players, remarkably enough considering the small performing space, had none of the typical problems with chorus or choreography. Indeed, the chorus was an absolute plus. The group scenes with Doolittle and his cronies, the scene with the buskers outside Covent Garden, the opening at Ascot, and the ball were all well-done. What’s more, the director added a number of interesting visual and interpretational touches to many of the numbers that I have not seen in previous local productions.

What disappointed both Bette and me were the very things that I long for in this musical — developed characterizations and interaction between the leading players. The Henry Higgins in this production was all on the surface, with lines spoken brightly at rapid fire, all at one level. I heard the lines, but heard no Henry. Where was his love for “the majesty of the English language,” where was his bombastic battle with Liza, where was his deep remorse at her parting?

He was partnered by a Pickering who seemed hell-bent on screaming his lines at a some far-reaching key, and, to make matters worse, spoke the English of Queens (or Brooklyn — I unlike Henry Higgins cannot place a man by his accent), rather than the Queens English. If ever there was a play that requires eloquent British English, this is one. Between this unlikely Higgins and Pickering, the hapless Liza had to jump through hoops to make her characterization credible, which, to her credit, she did well enough.

All the same, you still might want to catch this production. There is enough polish about it to make it worth your while if you are an ardent musical fan. There are two more weekends, with 8 p.m. performances on May 9, 10, 16, 17, and Sunday matinees on May 11 and 18 at 2 p.m. The Heights Players are located off the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, just four blocks from the Atlantic Avenue exit, at 26 Willow Place, just off Joralemon and State streets, in Brooklyn Heights.

Theater Learning Center: Six Degrees of Manhattan

A surprise of a different nature was in store for me two weekends ago when I learned about Theater Learning, an acting school for youngsters from 3rd to 12th grade with a 21-year-life span in Queens. Formerly located at St. Robert Bellermine’s in Bayside, the school recently relocated to its new home at the Hollis Woods Community Church, 215-16 82nd Avenue, Queens Village. To celebrate their new “digs,” the school mounted two performances of an exciting production, “Six Degrees of Manhattan,” on Saturday April 26. The production, with funding from the Queens Council on the Arts, featured talented current students as well as instructors and alumnus, all in diversified tribute to Manhattan.

The school, as explained to me by Maxine Fields, a woman with a mission for excellence in her young protégés, exists not only to teach performing skills to would be stage-bound students, but for the development of life skills for all youngsters, regardless of the aspirations. Namely, public speaking and personal presentation enable her students to hone their confidence and self-esteem, all of which were in abundant supply in the rousing April 26th production.

I am eagerly anticipating their upcoming major production, “Fame-Us,” June 21 at Queens Theatre in the Park at 8 p.m. featuring their older students, 12 to 18 years of age. Brainchild of artistic director Bob Calderon, the production will feature impersonations and improvisations focused around famous personalities and the challenge of making it in Hollywood. Anyone interested in seeing what wonders these youngsters can achieve on stage should call 718-357-4532 or 718-760-0064 for information — or just show up at Queens Theatre in the Park, right off the Grand Central Parkway at Flushing Meadow Park at 8 p.m. June 21.

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