Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Waverly Gallery

A friend of mine often uses the expression "pretty little play" to describe a show that's easy to digest, not especially profound or layered, and pretty satisfying nonetheless. The Waverly Gallery is very much a pretty little play--one I confess I probably wouldn't have gone out of my way to see, had my parents not been big enough fans of Nichols and May to have followed both their careers for decades. After they read about Elaine May's depiction of Gladys Green, an elderly gallery owner nearing the end of her life, they asked if I might like to se it with them. I'm a sucker for free theater and, ultimately, for hanging out with my folks. I'm so glad I didn't miss this one--and especially May's performance, which kicks brilliant, glorious, 86-year-old-woman ass up Waverly Place and back down again.

Marc J. Franklin

Directed by Lila Neugebauer and performed by a strong and likeable cast, the Broadway production accepts Lonergan's early piece (it was written in 1999) for what it is: a gentle, unfussy memory play about somebody's gradual loss of it. This production is as straightforward as the play itself: scenes unfold in chronological order; set changes take place behind a scrim on which projections of the city--grainy, black and white, and generic enough to be timeless--drift slowly from one side to the other before dissipating like smoke, accompanied by fittingly melancholy music by Gabriel Kahane. At times, the play is basic enough to feel almost pageant-like: Gladys's grandson Daniel (Lucas Hedges) steps forward during a few scene changes to address the audience with direct-address prose about his family, their relationships to one another and to his grandmother, and various other expository points that aren't spelled out in the dialogue.

Still: basic and straightforward are not necessarily bad or amateur, and in this case both work exceptionally well. Lonergan's play doesn't need to dig all that deep to resonate, after all: dementia affects a lot of people, which is why plays, films, tv shows and books about it prevail in popular culture. An awful lot of such stories, in fact, aren't nearly as effective as this comparatively low-key one. The strong acting, of course, helps a lot: Hedges is blunt but never stiff or self-conscious, whether interacting with other characters or during his confessional curtain-speeches, wherein he admits how difficult it is for him to spend time with Gladys, even as he clearly adores her. The same goes for the rest of the cast: Joan Allen and David Cromer play Gladys's daughter and son-in-law; both are believably caring, kind, boneheaded, and impatient with Gladys in equal doses. Michael Cera rounds out the cast as Don, the last artist to display his works at Gladys's small gallery. A kind and well-meaning drifter whose life hasn't worked out especially well, Don is the sole denialist of the bunch in insisting that Gladys's memory lapses are entirely the fault of what he assumes are sub-par hearing aids. His opinions, however, don't get in the way of his loyalty to Gladys or his willingness to help her and her family as she declines.

At the center is Gladys, played downright majestically by May who, much like the production she anchors, never forces anything, even though it would be incredibly easy to. It's so much more typical to play aging, addled characters in bellowing, raging, do-not-go-gentle fashion--or as one-dimensional punchlines. But May's portrayal is solidly dignified, and all the more remarkable since Gladys is a fairly big personality to begin with: she's as endlessly chatty, headstrong, opinionated and irritating as she is bighearted and smart and endearing. Aided with small, gradual changes to her appearance--a graying wig here, an alarmingly roomy dress there--her Gladys starts to diminish in ways that feel no less sad or unfair, but are a whole lot more convincing for the actor's excellent choices: favorite expressions start getting repeated ad-nauseum like so many tics; remembering the right words or finding the house keys becomes harder; recognizing dear friends and close relatives grows frustratingly challenging. May never lets Gladys become a caricature or cruel joke, even as she becomes less coherent or independent.

There may be nothing remarkable about aging, or even about losing your memory as you do. But of course, something as commonplace as decline can still pack a punch. This quiet, lovely production of The Waverly Gallery is all the stronger and more resonant for never once forgetting that. 

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