After a half-century absence, Elaine May has returned to Broadway, only to fade away before our eyes. Each beat of Kenneth Lonergan’s long sob of a play, The Waverly Gallery, buries her character, Greenwich Village denizen Gladys Green, a little more. All the while, each of the other characters memorialize her with loving recollections, before her off-stage death.
For fabled improviser and writer-director May, it’s a delectable return. And, fabulously, it is on stage at the same small-scale, old-fashioned house, the John Golden Theatre, where the world first met her (following Chicago’s embrace) in An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May in 1960.
Here in The Waverly Gallery, though, May’s trademark wit is subsumed into Gladys, whose dementia is causing her slow fade. Grandson Daniel (loving, patient Lucas Hedges) tells us this will be an end-of-life story; he’ll regularly punch through the fourth wall throughout the play.
While the design team — David Zinn (set), Leon Rothenberg (lights), Ann Roth (costumes) and Tal Yalden (projections) — ably serve the play’s reflective structure, the projections, in particular, underscore the long-ish scene changes and prolongs the narrative, placing us in the 1980s or more distant eras of Gladys’ memory.
Yet, like Yarden’s visuals, the character of Daniel — son of Gladys’ doctor-daughter Ellen (beleaguered, enduring Joan Allen) — may or may not be a necessary guide to Lonergan’s depictions. In fact, the playwright’s structure — presentation of details, enactment of illustrative moment, more presentation, more moment, presentation, moment, then a final narrative summary — mutes, strangely, the emotional punch of Gladys’ story. There are focused, resonant moments, to be sure, but sometimes we want to be closer to the parts of the story that occur off-stage, such as Ellen’s commitment to leaving her medical practice to take care of Gladys at home, or the last moments of Gladys’ life. Or else we want breaks for breath between some of the more intense scenes.
The Waverly Gallery, then, is a deeply nuanced yet emotionally distant play. Still, director Lila Neugebauer elicits some marvelous performances and also creative cross-talking from a solid cast.
The role of the leftist, sweetly engaged Gladys earned the legendary Eileen Heckart a passel of awards and nominations when she originated the role Off-Broadway in 2000. Here, Elaine May gives a knowing, heartbreaking portrait of pain and confusion at the changing circumstance of a singular mind, ranging from gentle forgetfulness to belligerence to resistance to anger to confusion. Gladys was a political activist and lawyer, and she married once. She has long lived in an apartment around the corner from her art gallery. Her passion, however, is to go out into the world every day more than to sell art.
There’s also Ellen’s husband, Howard (restrained David Cromer); and marginally talented painter Don Bowman (sweet, understated Michael Cera), who seeks to show in a Manhattan gallery and finds just such a possibility with an increasingly deaf and daffy Gladys.
The structure of The Glass Menagerie also comes to mind with this play. Like Tennessee Williams’ play, The Waverly Gallery has direct address by an adult character recalling pivotal past events in his family as he comes to grips with his own life.
In Menagerie, too, Tom’s journey is what we ruminate over after the show; he is an active narrator who provokes, cajoles, animates and agitates the action. Lonergan’s memory play, however, views dementia from Daniel’s perspective — a slightly embarrassed, yet loving, grandson and his family.
All of the performances could indeed be described as loving — and patient; there’s no drama other than how they can serve the overwhelm of Gladys’ dementia with kindness. Moments are evoked, but ultimately this is a young man’s view of an older woman’s story.
For Daniel doesn’t negotiate his own journey so much as arrive at a young person’s realization that struggle is worth the effort; that it’s the experience of living that keeps us trying. That is where we find Lonergan’s fabulous final message:
“It’s not true that if you try hard enough you’ll prevail in the end,” Daniel tells us. “Because so many people try so hard, and they don’t prevail. But they keep trying. They keep struggling. And they love each other so much; it makes you think it must be worth a lot to be alive.”