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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
The Waverly Gallery
By Les Gutman
Uniformly excellent, polished performances from the four supporting cast members in this new play by Kenneth Lonergan cannot distract us from recognizing the startling accomplishment of Eileen Heckart portraying Gladys Green, a woman limping, both literally and figuratively, to the end of her life. Gladys, who has been active, both politically and socially, all of her life, is now in her eighties. Her hearing is poor, and her mind is being progressively dismantled by Alzheimer's Disease (although Lonergan chooses not to use the "A-word").
This is a painful subject, yet one would be well advised not to miss Heckart's performance. It's hard for any of us to witness the rudderless descent of someone we care about, and heaven knows Ms. Heckart makes us care about Gladys. But Kenneth Lonergan, who demonstrated he knows a thing or two about creating a star vehicle for an actor in This Is Our Youth (review linked below), is also wise enough to know that the story he has to tell here, despite the star billing and fantastic performance, is not that of Gladys, but of everyone else. Gladys may have an inkling what's happening to her, but we don't really know what's going on inside that head of hers anymore. "It's no fun getting old," her son-in-law, Howard (Mark Blum), offers when the two are alone. "That's not a helpful thing to say," she responds. Nothing is.
So Lonergan writes of what he knows, and what this phenomenon feels like from two generation's remove. His alter-ego, Daniel (Josh Hamilton), is Gladys's grandson. When we meet her, Gladys maintains a small gallery near Washington Square. She still lives in the Village, alone, in the same building in which her grandson now also has his apartment. His mother, Ellen (Maureen Anderman), lives on the Upper West Side with his step-father, Howard. Gladys is a weekly dinner guest there but as her disease tumbles forward, she is forced to move uptown permanently -- an inevitable choice that is no more appealing to her daughter than to her. There she will hang on for two more years, an experience Lonergan has spared us from witnessing.
What we do confront is the bundle of experiences Daniel and, to a slightly lesser extent, his parents endure: denial, guilt, exasperation, rationalization and humor among them. Every nuance has been catalogued first by Lonergan's pristinely-apt dialogue, then by Scott Ellis's careful direction -- compassionate but never sentimental, funny but never dishonest and then crowned by splendid performance.
Blum makes Howard, whose 93 year old father has his own share of problems, sympathetic but less patient, competent yet somewhat clumsy. Anderman, a physician, speaks with the least-clouded emotions, even as she has the most difficulty dealing with what is happening: her anger is palpable. Through much of the play it is Daniel who is on the front lines, whether in affection or in frustration. Hamilton's reading oozes with warm integrity.
It also falls on Hamilton to serve as the play's narrator, a function he acquits nicely even though it is the least impressive aspect of Lonergan's work. A little narrative here is understandable, but Lonergan finds in Daniel's many apron speeches too easy a crutch on which to lean. At the other end of the spectrum is the spectacular way Lonergan has captured dinner table dialogue, multiple conversations worthy of a symphony, Gladys's impaired participation always producing the counterpoint.
The cast also includes Don (Anthony Arkin), an artist recently arrived from Boston, whose art show becomes the gallery's swan song. Arkin makes the character both endearing and appealingly eccentric, even if I fail to understand why the play needs the diversion. The same can be said for a subplot involving Gladys's impending eviction from the gallery (thankfully, at least the additional onstage landlord of the earlier production, see link below, has been jettisoned), which seems irrelevant in light of her intervening deterioration.
Derek McLane's wide set design, which employs side-by-side venues, one at the gallery and the other at Ellen and Howard's apartment, is particularly comfortable. All other design elements are just fine if unremarkable, and Jason Robert Brown's musical accents are a welcome addition.
A final casting note: As indicated below, Scotty Bloch will play Gladys at two matinees a week. Although I've gone out of my way to praise Eileen Heckart, and though I haven't seen Ms. Bloch's performance here, she's an estimable performer I very much admire, and I very much suspect she has found her own interesting and worthy stamp to put on this role. Mail from a CurtainUp reader would seem to confirm this.
LINKS MENTIONED ABOVE
CurtainUp's Berkshires review of The Waverly Gallery
CurtainUp's review of This is Our Youth
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