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Funny and Poignant

New writer's tale of loss and autumnal romance. THEATER: REVIEW

THE CEMETERY CLUB Comedy by Ivan Menchell. Directed by Pamela Berlin. Starring Eileen Heckart, Elizabeth Franz, Doris Belack. At the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. `THE CEMETERY CLUB'' is an entertainment hybrid - part TV sitcom, part Broadway recap (and soon to be a Hollywood movie).

Debuting playwright Ivan Menchell honors television and stage traditions in his amiably sympathetic tale of three middle-class, middle-aged, middle-income Jewish American widows. Once a month, the longtime friends join in visiting the graves of their respective husbands, an excursion that gives the play its title and raison d'etre.

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In the course of one such visit, Lucille (Eileen Heckart), Ida (Elizabeth Franz), and Doris (Doris Belack) chance to meet widower Sam (Lee Wallace), whose wife is also buried in the Forest Hills cemetery. With the encounter, Mr. Menchell devises an autumnal romance for Ida, which is briefly threatened by some jealous interference on the part of her two friends. The author maneuvers his modest comedy around the shoals and steers it to a poignant ending.

``The Cemetery Club'' delights in the material of its milieu: gossipy small talk, reminiscence, Jewish-American coinage, and plenty of wisecracks for Miss Heckart to deliver with her patented brand of crackle and snap. In addition to a certain amount of broad humor, the Menchell jokes include a running gag - perhaps a jogging gag in today's context - having to do with Lucille's accumulating mink wardrobe. At one point, in the celebratory aftermath of a friend's wedding, the ladies dance a cha-cha-cha pas de trois.

The comedy has been staged by Pamela Berlin with due regard for its primary purpose: to keep the customers amused.

The purpose was achieved on opening night, thanks in no small part to the expertise of Miss Heckart and her fellow veterans. Miss Franz brings a tender romanticism to the role of Ida, and Miss Belack's Doris completes the emotional palette. Mr. Wallace plays Sam with a nice diffidence, and Judith Granite preens archly as Sam's incidental date.

John Lee Beatty's setting alternates between Ida's hospitable living room and the cemetery of the title, with lighting by Natasha Katz. Lindsay W. Davis's costumes include some wardrobes for Lucille that would make Saks Fifth Avenue flinch.

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