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A CurtainUp Review
The Waverly Gallery
By Elyse Sommer
But you'll definitely want to hear Gladys's grandson and Howard's stepson Daniel Reed tell us about his vivacious, sociable grandmother's journey into dementia. With her hearing poor and her mind under assault, Gladys, the central character of Kenneth Lonergan's 1999 play, The Waverly Gallery, sure doesn't make a case for a good old age.
However, as much, if not even more than two other of his recently revived early plays, This Is Our Youth and Lobby Hero, The Waverly Gallery has not just aged well but is better than ever.
With Elaine May starring in the top-drawer production now at the Golden Theater, Lonergan's tender but touching play based on his own grandmother is fun and funny, as well as heart-rendingly moving.
May, whose comic riffs with Mike Nichols are still big hits on YouTube, is now as old as Gladys Green, but she's still at the top of her game. Her portrayal of Gladys — as she was, as she is now, and as she's is about to be — is nothing short of perfection.
When we first see her Gladys is still more like an overly talkative eccentric than a tragic victim of an all too common old age ailment. Yet, despite her obviously already diminished hearing and memory, May manages to make full use of her comic flair to give us a vivid sense of an accomplished, life loving woman— a former lawyer, political activist, who still runs an art gallery on the ground floor of Greenwich Village hotel near her apartment in a building she owns.
Though that opening scene is essentially a monologue, she's not talking to herself or addressing the audience. Instead, she's interacting with her grandson Daniel who's also our narrator and the playwright's stand-in.
While The Waverly Gallery was always a star vehicle (Eileen Heckert, who created the role, was superb both in the Berkshire and Off-Broadway productions I saw), it also relies on its ensemble to make Gladys's family a vital part of her story. Thus, when Gladys's deterioration escalates from eccentricity to complete deterioration, the younger generation can no longer just stay in touch. Instead they're forced to deal with constant care giving which somehow makes them connect better and more lovingly
Gladys is certainly this play's pivot, and Elaine May's performance a sure-fire contender for Best Leading Actress. But The Waverly Gallery's welcome return to Broadway is also strongly supported by the outstanding ensemble, Lonergan's natural and emotionally authentic dialogue and Lila Neugebauer's subtle direction.
Lucas Hedges, whose acting career first blossomed when he appeared in Lonergan's Oscar winning Manchester by the Sea, shines as the grandson who loves his grandmother, appreciates her letting him live in the apartment next to hers, but never planned to spend quite as much time with her. Yet her increasing neediness makes it impossible to keep his distance.
Joan Allen is excellent as daughter Ellen, a doctor whose difficulty and anger in dealing with what is happening is palpable. (Maureen Anderman, who played Ellen originally is now Elaine May's Understudy). David Cromer, best known as a brilliant director (Our Town, The Band's Visit) here proves himself as a fine actor as Gladys's son-in-law, Howard, a somewhat impatient and untactful psychiatrist. The several scenes in their uptown apartment where Gladys and Daniel are weekly dinner guests where everyone talks at once without anyone really listening to each other are notable for their masterful timing.
To divert us from Gladys's depressing downhill progression, there's one additional character who's not related to Gladys, a Massachusetts artist named Don Bowman. For Michael Cera, this is his third outing as a Lonergan character and he shines here as he did previously. Bowman, is a newcomer to New York who happens into the Waverly Gallery in search of a place to hang his paintings and his art show becomes the gallery's swan song. Cera makes this character so appealingly quirky and endearing that both his presence and the sub-plot about the gallery being dispossessed by the hotel owner which struck me and Les Gutman as unnecessary originally, comes off as a fitting and poignant addition.
The downtown and uptown scenes are well supported by scenic designer David Zinn. And thanks to costumer Ann Roth and the wig & hair work of Campbell Young Associates, Gladys manages to look fetching even as all other aspects of her once chic and lively persona. Projectionist Tal Yarden's between scene projections of the changes on the Greenwich Village street outside the gallery and Gladys's apartment are effective, but they eventually become repetitious and too much of a good thing.
To sum up, old age can indeed be painful so this is hardly escape entertainment. Fortunately Elaine May and The Waverly Gallery are both aging very nicely indeed and well worth a visit.
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The Waverly Gallery by Kenneth Lonergan
Directed by Lila Neugebauer
Cast: Elaine May (Gladys Green), Lucas Hedges (Daniel Reed), Joan Allen (Ellen Fine), David Cromer (Howard Fine),Michael Cera (Don Bowman).
Sets by David Zinn
Costumes by Ann Roth
Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt
Sound design:Leon Rothenberg
Projections: Tal Yarden
Hair & Makeup: Campbell Young Associates
Original Score composed by Gabriel Kahane
Production Stage Manager: Charles Means
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, plus 1 intermission
From 9/25/18; opening 10/25/18; closing 1/27/19
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 10/26/18 press performance
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