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The Waverly Gallery

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Elaine May in The Waverly Gallery

Elaine May The Waverly Gallery. Photo Credit: Brigitte Lacombe .

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

It is a heartbreaking study in human decline, watching the indomitable Elaine May play 86-year-old, hard-of-hearing Gladys Green, fiercely grappling with dementia as she clutches her dignity, fights for lost words and finally cannot even recognize those closest to her. Written by Kenneth Lonergan (Lobby Hero), The Waverly Gallery is a touching memory play based on his grandmother. It offers no happy ending, a trail of losses, anger, frustration, a picture of decline and dependency, eloquently honest and crushingly sad.

Directed perceptively by Lila Neugebauer (At Home At the Zoo), the play follows Gladys over a period of two years, 1989 to 1991. The owner of a largely ignored Greenwich Village art gallery, she is charming and loquacious, vainly trying to camouflage her hearing aid and chattering endlessly to cover her deafness and her losses in memory. Throughout the play, Tal Yarden's projections show neighborhood scenes of Greenwich Village of the 1950's and '60s, the years when Gladys was younger, a lawyer and married.

At the top of the play, she is having a sandwich in the gallery with her grandson, Daniel Reed (Lucas Hedges from the film, Manchester by the Sea), who listens with trying patience and dry humor as Gladys repeats her stories almost without pause. "No, I don't write for a newspaper," he tells her for the umpteeth time.

Daniel is also narrator of the play, often stepping forward to speak to the audience about his grandmother before moving back to real time. Balancing the past and present presents Hedges with occasional problems but his love for his grandmother is apparent, even in the most challenging moments.

Familiar to many families, Daniel's mother and father suffer with frustration as Gladys' dementia progresses. It is hard watching the talented Joan Allen portray Glady's daughter, Ellen Fine, a psychiatrist, reacting with impulsive resentment. You may criticize Ellen's impatience with her mother's chaotic rambling or you may be  more empathetic as one  who has experienced the same situation. Of course, Gladys cannot help what is happening to her, but neither can her daughter, as much as she wishes to be more tolerant.  Ellen's husband, Howard (David Cromer, director of The Band's Visit), can distance himself emotionally while Ellen, Gladys' daughter, is torn by love versus guilt and duty.

Michael Cera, recently featured in Lonergan's Lobby Hero, plays Don Bowman, is a struggling artist with a New England accent who suddenly appears at the gallery and meets Gladys who gives him a small room to sleep in and store his art.

Lonergan's dialogue, with characters often talking over each other, is always as natural as eavesdropping on a bus. The link between his characters rings true and above everything, Elaine May is poignant and authentic with on-target timing. It is easy to appreciate her early energy and disarming charm before the mental decline and heartbreaking to watch the plunge into the bewildering mental destruction and losing all sense of reality. There is humor in the craziness of it all, as when Gladys talks about going back to practicing law, but laughter dissolves into tears, as we recognize the inevitability of life.

This family tragedy is honest, if occasionally uneven, but Elaine May is peerless as the heartbreaking Gladys Green.

The Waverly Gallery
Golden Theatre
252 - West 45 Street, New York, NY
Previews: Sept. 25, 2018. Opening: Oct.25, 2018. Closing: Jan. 27, 2019&
Running time: Two hours. One intermission.
Cast: Joan Allen, Michael Cera, David Cromer, Lucas Hedges, Elaine May
Playwright: Kenneth Lonergan
Directed: Lila Neugebauer

Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors
October 2018

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