Theatre Review: The Waverly Gallery
The Waverly Gallery
By Kenneth Lonergan
Directed by Lila Neugebauer
Broadway: Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th Street, New York, NY
December 14, 2018
Reviewed by Scott Klavan
Hyperbole makes for lazy criticism, but it’s not extreme to say that Elaine May is giving one of the theater’s all-time great performances as Gladys Green in the new Broadway production of Kenneth Lonergan’s 2000 play The Waverly Gallery. May, 86, portrays an elderly woman sinking into dementia, and in the past, this role would likely have been played by a younger person, given the paucity of actors in their later years able to do leads. But May’s energy and expressiveness are full, whole; veering from angrily puzzled outbursts to genial recountings of her heyday, she is funny, frightening, and terribly sad, bringing a reality and depth to the role that is barrier-breaking.
The production features a fine cast of surrounding actors and a play that is smart and telling, if somewhat limited and flawed. Its story is that of an affluent, sophisticated Jewish upper west side NYC family in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, trying to cope with the aging of their voluble mother and grandmother Gladys, a retired lawyer and widow who for years has run a tiny struggling art gallery in Greenwich Village. Manhattan could tolerate small personal businesses in those days, and Gladys runs the gallery without a lease from her landlord, who owns a hotel attached to it. But times are changing, gentrification is coming, Big Money and corporate-think; the little gallery is doomed. The coming change hurts Gladys’s devoted daughter Ellen (Joan Allen), Ellen’s irascible second husband, Howard (David Cromer) and, particularly, Gladys’s sensitive grandson Daniel (Lucas Hedges), in his 20s, living in the same building as his grandmother. The family, refusing to send Gladys to a nursing home, dread what the closure of the gallery will mean for her deteriorating mental state. Their emotions range from frustration and dark humor to fear and grief. As the gallery’s time runs out, Gladys puts up one final art show, the paintings of Don Bowman (Michael Cera) a bumbling young idealist from Boston whom she lets stay in a gallery back room.
The play, produced Off-Broadway in 2000, is a series of brief scenes set in Gladys and Ellen’s apartment, and the gallery itself, punctuated by Glass Menagerie-style direct address monologues by Daniel. Dialogue is top-notch: wry, clever, and bitter. Gladys’s decline and the effect on the family grows harrowing and Lonergan and director Lila Neugebauer skillfully, brazenly shove it in our faces, sparing nothing of the rage, shame, and heartache unremitting aging creates within a person and her loved ones. A scene where Gladys continually rings Daniel’s doorbell in the middle of the night is a traumatic highlight. David Zinn, the master set designer of the day, manages New York settings that are familiar yet specific to the characters, place, and time. There are probably too many scene changes but Neugebauer ably covers them by showing films of past New York sidewalk crowds on an apartment house brick wall facade; the filmed years, the ‘30s-80s, grow softly jumbled, like Gladys’s recollections. Throughout, The Waverly Gallery’s production values are exact and exemplary.
One leaves the play moved and alarmed, which is all to the good. But the lingering feeling gets mixed with discontent, because the piece is devoted almost exclusively to Gladys’s predicament and all of the characters’ reaction to it. While the family’s own briefly-remarked-upon experiences –Daniel’s miserable romance with a lover, Ellen’s failed first marriage, Howard’s irritable pronouncements—come with a hint of delusion that match in their own way Gladys’s, there is so little concrete information about their lives that it’s hard to connect. We wonder why Daniel is such a diffident young guy with such a tight attachment to his mother, and have to be told that Gladys, before she crumbled, was a loving and formidable woman; we don’t get much of a sense of it in the interaction, even in fragmentary remnants. We’re told the family is close but often see a lack of warmth between them and the result is merely vagueness. Maybe this is meant to imply that Gladys has overtaken everything, making the rest of their lives moot, but probably not. It just would have been nice to hear more about the jobs and pasts of all the characters and there was room for inclusion in the play’s structure, which runs two acts and two hours and fifteen minutes. Strangely, visiting artist Don’s story gets more detail, is more complete and involving.
Kenneth Lonergan was a young playwright in 2000 and his youth shows in the fine ear of the writing, but also in the rocky plot. Gladys’s crucial expository opening scene with Daniel flashes by; we don’t absorb information we’ll need later on, and it’s not repeated. Youth is also in some of the ruminations on the topic of aging by narrator Daniel. When he states that people don’t always “prevail” in their battle with The Life Force, it seems to be meant as wisdom, not irony; the naïveté is not from the character, but the writer. It is assumed that by now, the playwright knows: no one ever prevails.
Many in the superb creative team are coming off big recent successes. Lonergan won the Oscar last year for Manchester by The Sea and had another revival earlier 2018, Lobby Hero, @ Second Stage; Neugebauer’s The Wolves was a hit at Lincoln Center; Hedges was featured in Manchester and is the new hot young actor, in three films in theaters as this review is being written; Cromer, better known as a director, won the Tony for The Band’s Visit; Cera, a veteran of Lonergan’s pieces, has been a singular presence in popular movie comedies, from SuperBad on; Joan Allen, out of Chicago and Steppenwolf, Broadway in The Heidi Chronicles, Hollywood in The Crucible and The Contender, is just one of the best, most natural actors (constantly) working. And Elaine May, innovative in her comedy teaming with Mike Nichols in the 1950s, afterward writing and/or directing movies and plays including The Heartbreak Kid and Heaven Can Wait, here appearing on Broadway for the first time in over fifty years, contributes something more than a performance for which she will soon win awards. She uses her age and maturity as a tool and boon, to bring back our mothers, drive home our own mortality, and, by speaking through her character soul-to-soul with the audience, paints a work of art.
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including two productions of The Joy Luck Club for Pan Asian Rep. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and for companies including HBO, Warner Bros. and Viacom. In 2015, he was featured in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, and earned a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival. He directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, off-Broadway at The New Ohio Theater and at the United Solo Festival. Scott directed and appeared in the solo play Canada Geese, by George Klas, in the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival. He is currently directing and developing the play One Moment, by Broadway producer James Fuld, Jr. In 2017, he directed and co-wrote with Del Fidanque Off-Line and directed Night Shadows by Lynda Crawford, in Emerging Artists Theatre’s (EAT) New Work Series. He is a Lifetime Member of The Actors Studio and a member of the Studio’s Playwright/Directors Workshop. He teaches at the 92nd St. Y and other arts organizations.