Often it begins almost imperceptibly. If you’re lucky, it may take decades. Live long enough, though, and you’ll surely confront the increasingly disabling effects of old age. You may see them in yourself, in your loved ones, or both. But if the experience is pretty much universal, the way we handle it, practically and emotionally, is widely varied.
In Kenneth Lonergan’s often powerful The Waverly Gallery, we watch through the eyes of a family who is living it. Ellen and Howard Fine, a married pair of doctors, are every day more aware that Ellen’s mother, Gladys Green, is a bit closer to losing her way. They are, indeed, Fine people, this pair whose grace and compassion mostly gets them through, although the breaking point is often not far away. The situation is even harder on Daniel Reed, Ellen’s adult son by a previous husband, who clearly adores his grandmother.
At the center of Waverly is 85-year-old Gladys, and I mean that in two senses. This delightfully chatty and opinionated gallery owner, whose memory and hearing are diminishing quickly, is the focal point of Lonergan’s play. But surely the raison d’etre for this Broadway premiere is the extraordinary presence of Elaine May, who plays Gladys here.
May’s storied Broadway appearances with her then-comedy partner, Mike Nichols, happened nearly 60 years ago; for most of the last half-century, she’s been out of the public eye. She returns here in triumph, mastering an exceptionally difficult role that requires her repeatedly to appear to forget where she is in conversation (paradoxically, if that’s not a test for an actor’s memory, I don’t know what is!).
May is nuanced and charismatic throughout, her very presence feeling like a balm to many audience members. I should also admit that I found her performance to be immersed in its own world. Of course, that makes sense for a character who is losing touch with reality, but more than once I was reminded of a phrase used by a canny actor and director I knew: “private acting.”
Even with May in the driver’s seat, Waverly is a larger story than Gladys’s, and director Lila Neugebauer realizes the play’s potential with a beautifully orchestrated production that captures in flavorful detail this high-achieving New York family.
Joan Allen and David Cromer are terrific as the harried but compassionate Fines. Lucas Hedges, who plays Daniel, is even better and utterly endearing. Hedges handles his on-stage narration with a sense of naturalness that one almost never sees—for me, he’s this production’s revelation. Michael Cera, playing an oddball artist whom Gladys champions, is droll and winning.
Neugebauer’s production stumbles only in the insertion of video montage scene changes. Accompanied by Gabriel Kahane’s sentimental chamber scoring, they feel more like something from a bathetic TV melodrama. Apart from this, Waverly is largely pitch-perfect.
In terms of the script, that’s also how I’d describe Lonergan’s dialogue. Whether in extended monologues (for Gladys, who seems unaware that she’s mostly talking and rarely listening) or family conversations verging on incomprehensible babble, the playwright has an unerring ear. Many scenes truly capture a slice of life.
Make no mistake, though: while Waverly deals with a situation that all too many of us will face, that slice of life that it pictures is very specific.
Audiences will, of course, be moved by this poignant story. But sensitive viewers will also realize that the Fine family are far better equipped than many to deal with it. They are a loving, supportive, stable group with considerable financial means–not to mention educated, white, and heterosexual. Even the family quirks in Waverly, like Daniel’s rueful self-mockery about the abusive girlfriend to whom he remains loyal for years, reflect good breeding.
Devastating as it will be to cope with Gladys’s waning powers, the Fines have options.
Yet I’m not sure that the tearful, enrapt crowd at the Golden Theatre recognized how special and privileged the Waverly world really is. These are, after all, people who can afford to be in New York and spend $150 to see a play. For that matter, I’m not sure Lonergan recognizes it, either.
In the end, The Waverly Gallery is undermined by its solipsism. What we see here, horrific as it is, might be described as the best possible outcome in a very gloomy situation. Let that sink in. The lack of awareness that permeates Lonergan’s script diminishes its potential impact.
The Waverly Gallery plays at the John Golden Theatre on Broadway through January 27th. For more information, visit the production website.