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Broadway Reviews

The Waverly Gallery

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 25, 2018

The Waverly Gallery by Kenneth Lonergan. Directed by Lila Neugebauer. Scenic design by David Zinn. Costume design by Ann Roth. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Leon Rothenberg. Projection design by Tal Yarden. Hair and makeup design by Campbell Young Associates. Original Score by Gabriel Kahane. Cast: Elaine May, Lucas Hedges, Joan Allen, Michael Cera, and David Cromer.
Theatre: Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Elaine May
Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Is it enough? That's a question you'll have to ask yourself before heading out to the Golden Theatre, where the revival of Kenneth Lonergan's The Waverly Gallery opened tonight, anchored by the rock-solid, funny, and ultimately quite moving performance by renowned comic-playwright-screenwriter-actress Elaine May as a fiercely independent woman who is being devoured by the unstoppable mind-eater that is dementia.

If the most important thing to you is the opportunity to experience an actress of Ms. May's stature, an icon of the performing arts since the 1950s and her inventive comedy work with Mike Nichols, then you have answered my initial question. It's enough. Or maybe you're more of a fan of Lucas Hedges, the young actor best known for his film work (Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird, and the new coming-of-age drama Boy Erased ). Here, he plays Daniel, the grandson of Ms. May's character, Gladys. If you're more of a theater person, you'll assuredly know the names and the work of Joan Allen and David Cromer, who are on hand as Gladys' harried daughter Ellen and son-in-law Howard. And, finally, there's everyone's favorite portrayer of quirky, nebbishy characters, Michael Cera, who plays Don, an aspiring artist who wanders into Gladys' small Greenwich Village gallery one day and periodically wanders in and out of the play, a funny but tangential character.

So kudos to Caparelliotis Casting for bringing together such an interesting, talented, and appealing group of actors. But, at the risk of repeating myself as endlessly as Gladys asking her grandson whether he cooks, is it enough? Unfortunately, I've got to say no, not when the plot, the characterizations, and the production are so sketchy, choppy and underdeveloped, and the sum of the parts fails to coalesce into a cohesive whole.

The Waverly Gallery, which dates to 2000 and which was, in fact, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is touted as a "memory play." That's a clever way of packaging it, for it's both a play about Gladys' failing memory, and one that is structured along the lines of other works that are narrated from a distance of time by one of the characters. Some have even referred to this as Kenneth Lonergan's own The Glass Menagerie, a comparison I find difficult to justify, despite the playwright's knack for writing individual scenes that are very funny, quite poignant, or both simultaneously.

Lucas Hedges, Elaine May, Joan Allen,
David Cromer, and Michael Cera
Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

The person whose memory serves as the generator of the story is that of Gladys' grandson Daniel, Lucas Hedges' role. Sometimes he talks directly to the audience, during which times he tries to be disarmingly honest in reflecting on his own growing reluctance to be in Gladys' company. "I used to drop by once in a while," he says, "but usually if I was walking past the gallery, I'd just duck down behind the cars across the street so she wouldn't see me go by. It's not that I didn't like her. I did. It's just that once you went in there, it was kind of tough getting out again. So I was pretty stingy with the visits."

In this somewhat self-deprecating, self-protective observation, we will come to realize he is echoing the attitude of his step-father (Mr. Cromer) and, even more so, his mother (Ms. Allen), whose patience is frayed to the breaking point just from the sheer insistent presence of her own mother.

But here we hit a snag. For most of the play, Gladys remains fairly independent. She lives on her own. She manages the gallery, which requires almost no management, and she is not physically incapacitated except for a relatively mild case of diabetes. She does not need to be looked after so much as looked in on. Yet, from what we see of the reactions of her daughter, and, to a lesser extent, of the other two family members, the level of near desperation with respect to her "demands" on them far exceeds what we are witnessing. Why? Is there something about their past relationship that is driving this degree of angst? Daniel, our eyes and ears on the unfolding events, never says.

An even bigger "memory" issue stems from the fact that Daniel seems to be recalling specific events he was never a part of, especially with respect to Gladys' interactions with Don (Michael Cera's character), the struggling artist whom Gladys takes under her wing, even to the point of letting him sleep on a cot in the gallery. Their conversations are eccentric, with each of them so self-absorbed that they talk at cross purposes. Maybe that's a point Lonergan is making, that Gladys' increasingly lost-in-herself representation is not confined to individuals with dementia but may be part of the human condition. Still, this is a play, not an essay, and for all of Mr. Cera's idiosyncratic charm, the role of Don is so self-contained and underwritten that the play would feel fully intact if the character were to be removed altogether. Not to slight the talented but less experienced Lucas Hedges, but Cera might have done better in the role of the grandson.

In any event, it is the character of Gladys who is the most well-drawn. It is the dominant role, and, in Elaine May's hands, we really get a sense of who this woman is. Even in her mental decline, marked by rambling speeches, increased confusion, and a growing terror, we can tell that Gladys has always been a force to be reckoned with, someone who likes to talk and expects to be attentively listened to. A former lawyer, she spends her time between her nearby apartment and the tiny art gallery which she took on more as an avocation than as a business. By play's sad, inevitable end, we've walked with her during her final decline until she ends up as Shakespeare perfectly described it in As You Like It: "sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."

Thematically, the play could not be more spot-on in its depiction of this loss of self. Yet, it is still a play that is made up of short, choppy scenes, unfortunately magnified by the frequent dropping of a scrim, during which David Zinn's adequate but uninspired set design (the key feature being lots of art work on the walls of every locale) is shifted to move the action among the gallery, the home of Gladys' family, and, later, her apartment.

During these many intervals, images are projected onto the scrim, representative of an earlier time in the life of Greenwich Village, all to the accompaniment of Gabriel Kahane's original music. If ever there was a call for a revolving set, this would be it. It may be that all of the starts and stops and nebulousness were intentional on director Lila Neugebauer's part, the production's way of indicating that memories are often disjointed and vague. It is an arguable point, I suppose, but to me at least, it isn't enough.

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