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The Waverly Gallery

Posted 10/31/18Waverly Gallery reviewed  by Fern Siegel for

Elaine May, who stars in The Waverly Gallery, the Broadway revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s autobiographical play, is a revelation.

Now at the Golden Theater, she plays Gladys Green, the kind of character Greenwich Village once produced, with warmth and singularity. A former attorney with an active social life, she’s now content to sit in her art gallery, exhibiting unknown artists to the few patrons who pop in.

But from the first scene with her attentive grandson Daniel (Lucas Hedges), it’s clear this sweet old lady isn’t all there. The repetition and memory lapses that plague her are symptoms of a corrosive disease, though Alzheimer’s isn’t mentioned by name.

“Her mind was smashed to pieces, and the person she used to be hadn’t really been around for a long time,” Daniel explains.

The Waverly Gallery is a sad play; it examines the loss of dignity that dementia sufferers endure, and the cost to the family in personal and practical terms.

Gladys has charm, occasional wit and relentless kindness, which is why it’s painful — yet understandable — to see her family veer between care and frustration.

Daughter Ellen (Joan Allen), a doctor, is often curt, though the love and concern are there. Gladys comes for dinner every Wednesday. And each week, the family must learn to cope with progressive decline. Yet the contrast between the two women, one social, one reserved, is striking.

Similarly, Howard (David Cromer), Ellen’s husband, tries to be sympathetic, but his raised voice, assuming Gladys can’t hear, is as tone deaf as this comment: “It’s no fun getting old.” An offended Gladys snaps: “Why do you always say that to me? Nobody wants to hear that! That’s not a helpful thing to say.”

May’s delivery is priceless. She levels Howard with her vocal spin.

It’s a tough subject and in 1989, the year the play opens, far less resources and information were available. The Waverly Gallery is a chamber piece about the nature of self and the meaning of family.

“These particular characters are largely based on my own family, who I like very much. When people are struck with adversity, you often see really wonderful traits coming to the fore,” Lonergan remembers.

Indeed, there is great humanity and even humor in The Waverly Gallery. At heart, it’s more a meditation on life and loss. Michael Cera plays Don, an artist Gladys befriends. But his role brings little to the play.

Lila Neugebauer makes a sensitive Broadway directorial debut with an all-star ensemble. Both Allen and Cromer are Tony winners, and May deserves a nomination for her heartbreaking performance.          — Fern Siegel