New York City Theater
"The Waverly Gallery"
What becomes a legend most? That’s the key line in advertisements for Blackglama furs, of course. But there’s also Elaine May who’s giving a legendary performance in the revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s heartfelt “The Waverly Gallery.”
As generous, garrulous Gladys Green, May, known more for her writing and her unforgettable partnering with Mike Nichols, marshals all her gifts. Portraying a woman descending into Alzheimer’s, she’s funny and frightened, sad and smart. Of course, credit must be given to Lonergan’s script and Lila Neuberger’s subtle direction, although the scene transitions are awkward and interruptive.
But May’s timing and detailing of the character – every gesture, every smile, every hesitation -- are what make the evening so special. Just listen to how she says, “What’s wrong with crying?” Investing the line with a combination of world-weariness and a life lesson of emotions, she encompasses the terrors as well as the glories of what it’s like to be human. Just watch her sink into an armchair, like a child who’s been yelled at but with her goodness and insistence intact.
Running with Lonergan’s overlapping dialogue, she’s a woman either two steps behind or two ahead. Searching for words, her struggle is so natural, her smile so filled with pleading that, when she finally succumbs, she is terrifying.
As a small gallery owner, she’s threatened with eviction. Few visitors show up, but she maintains the place as an oasis for struggling artists. The simultaneous destruction of her mind and her shop feed off one another.
The settings are Greenwich Village, home to laissez-faire New Yorkers, and the Upper West Side, home to liberal Jews. Embodying both the city, with its tough tolerance, and the religion with its blending of self-deprecating humor and sadness, Gladys battles for survival.
May, great as she is, is surrounded by an A-1 cast. Lucas Hedges is patient and forgiving, hurt yet sensitive as Daniel, Gladys’ grandson, proving his superb screen appearances are no flukes. Joan Allen is moving as end-of-my-rope yet caring daughter-in-law Ellen, while David Cromer is gruff as Ellen’s husband, Howard. As Don Bowman, a would-be artist and an object of Gladys’ benevolence, Michael Cera layers a sense of mystery on his seedy persona.
This is not a heavily-plotted work. Lonergan is more interested in how characters interact, how they deal with impossible family dynamics. Perhaps our most empathetic playwright, he grabs audiences’ attention not by melodrama but realism. These are the people next door, doing their damnedest to get through the days and nights.
In Elaine May, Lonergan, his director and cast, have explicit evidence of how we manage our lives, even in the face of the unexpected and the unwanted. We can laugh, we can scream, we can escape, but those are easy ways. Better to meet the difficulties head-on, fighting to the end.
--David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 24, 2018