Elaine May is back on a Broadway stage after more than 50 years, and making the most of it in The Waverly Gallery, Kenneth Lonergan’s meticulously observed, funny and sad play about a woman’s decline and its effect on her family. May is not alone. She is one of five stellar cast members, notably Lucas Hedges making a splendid Broadway debut. They turn this 18-year-old play into…if not required, certainly well-rewarded viewing. So does Lila Neugebauer in her overdue Broadway directorial debut.
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But it is especially thrilling to watch May, who is herself 86 years old, as Gladys Green, once a lawyer married to a doctor, cultured, socially conscious, a garrulous and gregarious raconteur. Now a widow, she has run a small art gallery in Greenwich Village for 28 years, one that these days is almost always without visitors.
When the play begins, and she is chattering away with her grandson Daniel (Hedges), The Waverly Gallery feels like a comedy. Gladys is light and bright and eccentric, with May exhibiting the comic timing that launched her career as one-half the comedy duo Nichols and May. But there is something off about her. She tells Daniel about her life, about their family, but he knows it all already, and she has trouble hearing his responses when she asks him a question (questions she asks again and again), until he gets up and adjusts her hearing aid.
In the middle of their conversation, Daniel stands up abruptly and walks to the lip of the stage to deliver a monologue to the audience: “I want to tell you what happened to my grandmother…near the end of her life …”
Lonergan was not an especially young man (38) when he wrote The Waverly Gallery, which ran Off-Broadway in 2000, but he’s said the play is based on his own grandmother’s last years, and it’s told from a young man’s perspective; Hedges, who functions as the narrator, is just 21 years old.
It would be hard to call The Waverly Gallery outdated. It was a period piece to begin with, and the issue at center stage – the frustration of dealing with a deteriorating family member — is never less than timely.
But there have been a slew of plays on the same subject in the past few years . In 2016 alone, I counted five in New York that featured an elderly character with dementia– Dot The Humans, Her Requiem, Smokefall. and, most memorably, The Father, starring Frank Langella in a deliberately disorienting play by Florian Zeller as a character named Andre. We see Andre’s increasing senility from his perspective; slowly and surreally, for example, his home empties of its furniture.
In The Waverly Gallery, the story is as much about the people around Gladys – the grandson Daniel who lives down the hall from her, but also his mother/her daughter Ellen (the always reliable Joan Allen), Ellen’s second husband Howard (David Cromer, an acclaimed director but holding his own in a low-key acting role), and one outsider. Michael Cera (who has performed in all three of Lonergan’s Broadway productions) portrays Dan Bowman, an artist with an endearing personality but questionable talent who has traveled to New York from his home in Massachusetts, and is living in his car as he makes the rounds of galleries, hoping for a show. Gladys gives him that show – and, when she hears about his living arrangement, invites him to stay in the back of the gallery. The presence of this character seems at least partially intended to demonstrate an aspect of Gladys’ personality that her family talks about – her kindness and her effectiveness. “If you ever wanted anything done in New York, you called Gladys,” Howard tells Don. It’s a personality trait that fades along with the rest of her personality.
“Her mind was smashed to pieces,” Daniel tells us, “and the person she used to be hadn’t really been around for a long time. . .. But the pieces were still her pieces.”
In a pivotal moment in the play, Ellen announces that the landlord told her he’s going to kick out Gladys’ gallery and turn it into a breakfast café for his hotel. He’s giving them five months for her to close up shop. This upsets everybody. Yes, they worry about what Gladys’ life will be like without the gallery to occupy her time. But they seem more alarmed about what this will mean for their own equilibrium. “We’re going to have to move her in here,” Ellen says to Howard, “and then I’m going to slit my wrists.”
They don’t tell Gladys the news; by this time, she’s too far gone to absorb it. We see her deterioration in many small, heartbreaking moments. She complains that nobody’s talking to the dog when she herself is feeling neglected – while the family talks about her in front of her, confident she can’t hear nor understand them.
The family members aren’t just harassed by her behavior, and upset about the loss of her personhood; it becomes clear they’re also fearful of what the future might bring….for themselves. One of the playwright’s key insights is how much of Gladys is already in their own behavior – they repeat conversations, they act distracted and forgetful. At an especially hopeless moment, Daniel tearfully hugs his mother and tells her he loves her – as if he is afraid that he will someday lose her as they have lost Gladys.
The Waverly Gallery is Lonergan’s third Broadway show in the past four years. All three have been resurrected on Broadway after long-ago Off-Broadway runs. This Is Our Youth, which marked his Broadway playwriting debut in 2014, dates back to 1996; Lobby Hero, which opened Second Stage’s new Broadway house the Helen Hayes earlier this year, premiered Off-Broadway in 2001. That these old plays are suddenly seen as more commercially viable or at least more mainstream might have something to do with the writer’s growing success in the movies: He is the Oscar-winning screenwriter and director of the 2016 Manchester by the Sea. Whatever the reason, Broadway audiences can only feel grateful when Lucas Hedges tells us, “I never want to forget what happened to her. I want to remember every detail, because it really happened to her, and it seems like somebody should remember it.” We do.
The Waverly Gallery is on stage at Broadway’s John Golden Theater (252 W. 45th St., between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10036) through January 27, 2019. Tickets and details
The Waverly Gallery by Kenneth Lonergan. Directed by Lila Neugebauer. Featuring Joan Allen as Ellen, Michael Cera as Don, David Cromer as Howard, Lucas Hedges as Daniel, Elaine May as Gladys. Scenic Design by David Zinn; Costume Design by Ann Roth; lighting design by Brian MacDevitt; sound design by Leon Rothenberg; hair and makeup design by Campbell Young Associates. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.