Elaine May in ‘The Waverly Gallery.’ (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Politics may have its blue and red waves but, in recent years, the theater has been experiencing a gray wave. I’m referring to a tide of plays about aging characters suffering from dementia and creating difficulties for the families who have to deal with them. A quick survey of the past half-dozen years turns up well over 30, including The Father at Manhattan Theatre Club (2016), The Memory Show (Off-Broadway, 2013), among others). The latest, and by far the best, is The Waverly Gallery by Kenneth Lonergan (Lobby Hero, Manchester by the Sea), starring the inimitable Elaine May as its garrulous, geriatric heroine.
Actually, Waverly Gallery is older than any of them, having been originally produced Off-Broadway in 2001 (when it was a Pulitzer Prize finalist), and is only now getting a full-scale Broadway revival. There’s little in Lonergan’s “memory play” that many subsequent plays about dementia, Alzheimer’s, or senility haven’t also covered but, with May in his corner, who cares?
May, 86, has enjoyed a sterling career as a writer, director, and actor following her enormous success as Mike Nichols’s partner in the improvisational comedy act Nichols and May. Now back on Broadway after 60 years, she steals your heart and snatches your breath with her remarkably authentic performance of the mentally fading, 85-year-old Gladys Green, a Jewish lawyer and former political radical turned Greenwich Village art gallery owner.
The action, set between 1989-1991, and staged by rising director Lila Neugebauer (The Wolves), shifts back and forth from Gladys’s tiny gallery on Waverly Place to the Upper West Side apartment of her daughter, Ellen (Joan Allen, The Heidi Chronicles, as good as gold), and Ellen’s husband, Howard Fine (David Cromer, Our Town, excellent). We also visit Gladys’s Village apartment, next door to that of her grandson Daniel (Lucas Hedges, Manchester By the Sea, solid in his Broadway debut).
Set designer David Zinn provides realistic interiors for each, the overlong shifts masked by a brick wall on which vintage films of New York street life are projected (Tal Yarden: projection design). Ann Roth offers suitable period clothing, and Brian MacDevitt lights it all smartly.
For the most part, the play concerns Glady’s troubled interaction with her loved ones, exacerbated by her hearing loss, which necessitates much shouting and discussion of her hearing aids. As common in such situations, Gladys misunderstands much of what she’s told (such as what Daniel does for a living, a running joke), repeats herself constantly, believes she can return to her old profession, forgets what she’s just been told, is bewildered or frightened, and eventually becomes non compos mentis. Watching the progression isn’t easy.
Meanwhile, Gladys’s increasingly frustrated family, especially young Daniel, can’t always stop yelling at her failure to comprehend either what they’re saying or, because of her insistence on independence, the gravity of her situation. Naturally, when her options (nursing home? home care?) are discussed, anyone who’s been through something similar will feel compassion (and, maybe, guilt). Lonergan brilliantly depicts these encounters, especially when multiple heated conversations overlap one another.
One other character offers some variety although he also seems a bit alien in this world. This is Don Bowman (Michael Cera, Lobby Hero, not quite at home), a young artist from New England, who wanders into the struggling gallery hoping to display his art. He’s quickly befriended by Gladys, who agrees not only to show his work but provides him with sleeping space. Don, while sweet and appreciative, is also something of a simpleton. Apart from revealing Glady’s kindness to an unknown artist, he lacks the familiar reality of the others.
The two-hour and 15-minute, two-act play, has many laughs (senile people, like children, do say the darndest things), necessary for so potentially maudlin a situation. Lonergan also introduces a secondary plot, in which the gallery’s future is threatened and efforts must be expended to save it. For additional background exposition, Lonergan relies on a series of monologues delivered by having Daniel break the fourth wall. While Hedges performs them nicely, they can seem like playwriting shortcuts to avoid having to actually dramatize their substance or to offer more information than actually needed.
May’s portrayal of Gladys’s flailing mind, combined with Lonergan’s depiction of the confusion and sorrow instigated by this outspoken octogenarian’s condition, create a potent clinical study in elderly decline. The Waverly Gallery is a poignant heart-tugger but it’s May who will truly make your day.
The Waverly Gallery
John Golden Theatre
252 W. 45th St., NYC
Through January 27
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sam, a Drama Desk voter, has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theatre, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side, Theater Pizzazz, and Theater Life.