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©Copyright 2000, Elyse
A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
The Waverly Gallery
By Elyse Sommer
As George Burns so aptly put it, "old age is not for sissies." Neither is watching Kenneth Lonergan's latest play The Waverly Gallery. Gladys Green, the proprietor of the gallery of the title, is a crusty old lady on the cusp of the downslide into Alzheimer's disease. The truly extraordinary accuracy and poignancy of Eileen Heckart's portrayal of Gladys is the chief reason for enduring the pain of two hours of witnessing the unrevisable final chapter of her life. In her information and humor filled opening monologue, Ms. Heckart manages to not only fill us in on the family history but to give us a vivid sense of Gladys. That's Gladys as she is now, as she is about to be, and as she must have been in her early years as a political activist and when she first started the little gallery on the ground floor of an old Greenwich Village hotel.
While Gladys is the play's raison d'être , her story is filtered through a narrator who's at once involved and a bystander, her grandson Daniel. Ably played by Josh Hamilton (who originated the much less sympathetic role of Dennis in Lonergan's last and well-received play This Is Our Youth) Daniel has much in common with Clifford of Warren Leight's Tony award winning Side Man. His career as a speech writer for an environmental protection group hints that even though he's tried to keep his distance from Gladys' eccentric life, enough of her social activism has rubbed off. As her deterioration escalates from eccentricity to complete disorientation, his efforts to be close but from an emotional distance becomes even more difficult.
Since Daniel's narration, unlike Clifford's in Side Man is less gracefully integrated into the play's action and also without that character's always present wry humor, this filtering process in turn distances us from any real emotional involvement. While we can identify with the problem of supporting someone we love through a difficult exit from life, it's the problem generally and not the characters that engages us. This is not the fault of the actors. Like Hamilton, Maureen Anderman and Mark Blum are excellent -- she as Gladys's daughter Ellen, a doctor and he as her husband Howard (also a physician) whose own set of squabbling parents leads him to remark "things are good all over with the old folks." The several scenes where everyone talks at once without anyone really listening to each other are handled with enormous skill and flawless timing.
The flaws are with the script which, despite being in the works for more than half a dozn years, is hardly ready to move to bigger and better things without some serious "doctoring."" Well acted as the above-mentioned "tower of Babel" scenes are, they fail to really show how the tragedy of Gladys will finally force this family to break a pattern of being connected without any real communication.
Even Gladys who, thanks to Ms. Heckart's multi-layered tragi-comic interpretation, has some of the grandeur of Dr. Vivian Bearing the Donne scholar dying of ovarian cancer in Wit (last year's Pulitzer prize winner) is hobbled by Mr. Lonergan's focus on Daniel. As my colleague Les Gutman who visited CurtainUp's summer "White House" for a whirlwind theater tour of the Berkshires observed, "Dr. Bearing was given a chance to say goodbye to the audience before she segues into a world of drug-induced semi-consciousness. Gladys just fades away leaving Daniel to speak for her. That's reality -- but dramatically it leaves a void." It should be added that the story of Side Man was very much the narrator's own story, Lonergan's narrator is just that and not a character in his own right.
The play has two other characters to divert us from the relentlessly depressing progression of Gladys' decline. The first is Don Bowman (Anthony Arkin), an unknown artist from Massachusetts who happens into the Waverly Gallery in search of a place to hang his paintings. The second is Gladys's landlord (Stephen Mendillo) a contemporary of Daniel's parents, who wants the gallery back so he can add a restaurant to the hotel he is renovating as part of an effort to re-gentrify the neighborhood.
There is a parallel between the two young men's quests. Don has tried to document his family's life and accomplishments, including his mother's macrame which, being made of thread, won't last except as recorded on canvas. Daniel tries to record his grandmother's life as a feisty activist and Greenwich Village art gallery owner, and also her feisty and sad exit from life and his family's desperate effort to support her through that difficult period. Unfortunately, the threads of connection are so weak that they are too easy to miss. Like Mr. Arkin's thick Eastern Massachusetts accent he distracts more than he adds. This despite occasionally humorous interchanges as Daniel's definition of his family's Jewish identity to Don -- "We're liberal Upper West Side atheistic Jewish intellectuals and we really like German choral music." The same distracting quality applies to the real estate subplot
Director Scott Ellis, supported by a capable design team, especially Derek McLane's semi-realistic set, has given The Waverly Gallery a production befitting the worthy play that is somewhere within this still imperfect world premiere.
Links to other plays mentioned
Our review of Kenneth Lonergan's previous play: This Is Our Youth