Elaine May’s electrifying performance in The Waverly Gallery, which just opened at the Golden Theatre, is very nearly a guilty pleasure. It delivers the core-rattling thrill of a roller-coaster ride, and yet it’s her up there, clattering up the rails and plunging down to the abyss as we watch, all but shielding our eyes from the inevitable outcome. It’s dangerous – who doesn’t love danger in a good, meaty story? – and miraculous, too.
May plays Gladys Green, proprietress of a tiny Greenwich Village gallery of undistinguished art. Gladys’ days as a vivacious, lefty hostess thoroughly engaged with bohemian society are long over. She lives nearby, down the hall from her grandson Daniel (Luca Hedges, a young actor of extraordinary range), who looks after her with increasing anxiety. Gladys is on that downward roller-coaster plummet, into senility or dementia.
Kenneth Lonergan’s wrenching drama opens with Gladys recalling her confusion over the divorce of Daniel’s mother Ellen (Joan Allen, in a finely calibrated performance) and his father. As we listen, even in this seemingly casual reminiscence (“I never knew anything was the matter,” she tells Daniel as they sit eating sandwiches in the gallery; “your mother never told me anything”), she seems brittle, fragmented.
It's immediately clear that Daniel’s heard it all before. And when she asks him a question, he tends to answer twice, first in conversational tone, then yelling, as though she were hard of hearing. This becomes a recurring theme as Daniel switches from character to narrator in what becomes his memory play, and we are attuned right off to that danger. Will Gladys lose her train of thought? Will her rambling have a point?
We’re never quite certain. And in truth, we’re never quite certain whether May herself is losing it. She’s 86 and hasn’t appeared onstage since 1998, when she was co-author and star of Power Plays, an off-Broadway hit. Gladys thinks Daniel writes for a newspaper, which he doesn’t. He’s told her A THOUSAND TIMES, to no lasting effect. When the play shifts to the Upper West Side, where Ellen lives with Daniel’s psychiatrist stepfather Howard (David Cromer, best known as a director and here impeccably clueless), a similar amount of yelling goes on.
The fifth character in this harrowing story is Don Bowman (Michael Cera, in another beautifully crafted performance), an artist from “outside Boston.” His semi-realistic work appeals to Gladys. For Don, any New York show is a New York show, and so he settles in, hanging his canvases and sleeping on a cot in the back.
As with Daniel’s narration, Don’s paintings provide a framework for the unfolding story of Gladys’ decline. Lonergan, who has a genius for dialogue that sounds ordinary while carrying vast emotional weight (his plays include This Is Our Youth; his films include the unforgettable Manchester by The Sea and You Can Count on Me), makes Gladys the enduring subject of one of our worst fears: the slow disappearance of a loved one whose presence has been an irreplaceable piece in the jigsaw puzzle of our lives.
“Everything you see is really there in real life,” Don says of his paintings. “I tried to get the details right because that's what you remember when you think about something, so I tried like hell to get them the way they are.”
That may be laying it on a bit thick, but we can’t really object. An earlier off-Broadway production of The Waverly Gallery starred Eileen Heckart as Gladys, who was described as irreplaceable in the role. Here, Lila Neugebauer has staged a production sublimely keyed to the nuances of character while never losing sight of the overwhelmingly sad tale within.
And I’ll wager Elaine May is masterfully in touch with Gladys’ soul as well as her lines. She makes the danger palpable. Her performance reminded me most hauntingly of Frank Langella’s in The Father, as a similar character unwilling to go gently into that good night. In both cases, we soar in the effort of that heroic battle – even as we know that in the end, the night will win.