Bob Goepfert Reviews "The Waverly Gallery"

Nov 1, 2018

Elaine May in "The Waverly Gallery"
Credit Brigitte Lacombe

NEW YORK, NY - “The Waverly Gallery,” which just opened on Broadway, was given its world premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in the Berkshires in 1999. It went to New York City the following year and had a short, but praiseworthy run.

I remember reviewing the play, but except for the awesome performance by Eileen Heckert as Gladys Green, a woman being overcome by senility, I remember little about the work itself.

This is not a knock on the play. The central character has remained in my mind for 20 years - and that’s a major accomplishment. The details of her life as expressed in the play are essentially unimportant. We know she was a lawyer, a left-leaning political activist and a very social person. But, by play’s end, all her memories have disappeared.

Thanks to the feisty portrayal offered by Elaine May, those memories are being honored at the Golden Theatre in Manhattan. Her performance in this Broadway revival makes the independent-gallery owner a memorable figure.

May is devastatingly brilliant as a once vital and still intelligent woman now in her mid-80s. Sadly, by the time we meet her, she’s a woman who is losing herself a day at a time. Though the theme can be depressing, May’s wonderous sense of comedic timing makes the vivacious woman always endearing, funny and idiosyncratic - until she isn’t.

May uses her improvisational skills that brought her fame as half the comedy team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, to make every scripted moment appear spontaneous. When the character is groping for a word it can be funny. Soon it becomes awkward. When eventually such moments progress to the terrifying realization that she has lost every detail of her life – it’s heartbreaking.

Though playwright Kenneth Lonergan and actor May collaborate to create an unforgettable and tragic character, the play’s resonance comes from the other victims of Gladys’ memory loss. Alzheimer’s is an affliction that affects every member of a family.

“The Waverly Gallery” is, arguably, at its most illuminating when we see even the kindest and most caring of her caregivers lose their patience, grow irritable and even wish for Gladys relief through death. They become people whose only way to cope is to withdraw from the world in which Gladys lives. The result is increasing isolation for all.

Joan Allen is wonderful as Ellen Fine, the dutiful daughter who struggles with her mother’s failing mental state. She seems to have abundant love for her mother, but little patience. Allen is masterful in suggesting, without the help of specific dialogue, that this has to do with their relationship over the years. One suspects the irrepressible Gladys was always a handful and perhaps not a doting mother. This suggestion not only illuminates the relationship, it also gives shading to Gladys as a person.

As Ellen’s psychiatrist husband Howard, David Cromer is refreshing as the sometimes politically incorrect individual who is the first to treat Gladys as a person who lives outside their reality. The last to come to that conclusion is the artist Don, who displays at Gladys’ gallery on Waverly Street in Greenwich Village and lives in a back room. Played by Michael Cera, the artist is delightfully naïve to the point of being helpless.

However, it is the grandson Daniel, played with wisdom and tenderness by Lucas Hedges, who might be the truly tragic figure in the play. Only in his 20s he still idolizes Gladys, but her behavior forces him to see that to remain her protector is futile. It’s a heartbreaking moment when he is forced to save himself by giving up on Gladys.

“The Waverly Gallery” is a difficult play to embrace. But it’s a masterful piece of theater about a group of people who fight the inevitable with the only weapon they have –love.

If you see the play, I promise you Gladys Green will remain in your memory - for as long as you have a memory.

The Waverly Gallery at the Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45thStreet, New Yok City.

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.