A Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1999, Kenneth Lonergan’s heartbreaking play spotlights the reemergence of writer/director Elaine May as a consummate performer. Not that the rest of the cast are slouches, but to watch May become Gladys Green, a once vital widow descending into dementia, is an unnerving treat.
May utilizes every bit of the impeccable timing with which she made her indomitable reputation as a comedienne, every bit of the intelligence and perception innate to her writing. Watch her hands and eyes, the way she moves through suddenly unfamiliar space, moments of innocent enthusiasm, abstraction, confusion, fear. Though the playwright wisely peppers this with humor, if you have a loved one going through this, you’ll likely be shredded.
After husband Herb died, gregarious, energetic Gladys made her avocation, a second tier Greenwich Village gallery, reason to carry on. Every day she sits in front of a small television manning the front without real expectation. The same art has been hung for years. In her late 80s, Gladys successively begins to forget things, to have trouble locating words, to imagine herself in the past. Continually fussing with her hearing aids doesn’t improve the additional failing. She’s often four beats or more behind.
Once a week Gladys dines with daughter Ellen (a moving Joan Allen), Ellen’s husband Howard (the solid David Kromer), and grandson Daniel (terrific understated performance by Lucas Hedges), who steps in and out of action narrating the piece. Daniel lives down the hall from Gladys and is subject to her constant ringing of his bell at all hours. Still, he loves her and is as patient with her as is Ellen (sarcastic cracks aside) and not quite as consistently, Howard. With increasing anxiety and frustration, the family helplessly observe her trajectory. Patience is tried in every possible way.
Lucas Hedges, Elaine May, Joan Allen, David Cromer, Michael Cera
One day, a young New England painter canvassing downtown for exhibition opportunity wanders in to The Waverly. Don (the reliable Michael Cera in a fairly innocuous role) is so thrilled to find Gladys appreciative, he barely notices either her vagaries or the nonexistence of patrons. Immediately offering both her establishment’s walls and back room, she maternally takes him in. The family looks Don over and sees no danger.
Lonergan’s story turns on the owner of Gladys’ space insisting she vacate. Coming simultaneously to her loss of axis makes the situation dire.
The play is sensitively written. One wonders whether Longergan meant to spare us by framing it with narration, however, which breaks momentum and somewhat alleviates impact.
Joan Allen and Elaine May
Lila Neugebauer’s Direction is immensely humane. Much of this play emerges in simple response or lack thereof, so movement and timing are paramount. Passages where players speak on top of one another are skillfully credible.
David Zinn’s Scenic Design deftly conjures not just Ellen’s middle class apartment, but an earlier time. Art in The Waverly is dreadful; that crowding the walls of Gladys’ home, far more interesting.
Costumes by Ann Roth imminently suit.
Though I understand the blurred projection of street activity (Tal Yarden) allowing for scene changes, it doesn’t quite work. What we see is rarely specific to the Village or the past (memories) and a brick wall on which images appear makes little sense. Like the narration, breaks draw us away from feeling quite as much.
Photos by Brigitte Lacombe
Opening: Elaine May
Kenneth Lonergan’sThe Waverly Gallery
Directed by Lila Neugebauer
252 West 45th Street