One word for Elaine May’s performance as Gladys Green in Kenneth Lonergan’s own family-inspired The Waverly Gallery, which opens tonight on Broadway, is “brave.” May is 86 years old, and her character is in the gradual, viciously debilitating throes of Alzheimer’s disease. She will soon not be able to run the Greenwich Village gallery of the play’s title.
Independence will segue to total dependence on others. A full, vivid life will become a shrunken one.
The part requires May to repeat herself, miss what is being said around her, be confused, cause unintentional chaos—all the things that people with Alzheimer’s can do.
May is being required to play her age at its most challenging and diminishing, and she does it so well that you may first worry that, as an actor, she is simply missing cues and repeating herself. But she is doing what the role asks of her, and with a very stealthy command. It is painful to watch. That’s how good she is.
May also furnishes Lonergan’s words with wit and depth. The play, which is very static and repetitive, moves under Lila Neugebauer’s direction at Gladys’ pace, and so we see the effects of Alzheimer’s on those around her keenly, as they find themselves at sixes and sevens responding to basic questions and more complex demands.
For this critic, it was odd to hear the audience laughing at May’s confusions, and sure this is partly to do with May’s skills as a comic actor—we’re meant to laugh. This critic didn’t. There really isn’t anything very funny about what Gladys is going through, nor her family’s response to it.
The laughter around me was nervous, and the direction that encourages that laughter feels just as nervous. Just what does this play want us to do? The cast tentatively walks a middle ground, and the audience follows.
Gladys’ grandson Daniel (Lucas Hedges; nervy, chippy, and kind, all at clashingly believable once) loves his grandmother very much and is as solicitous as he can be, even if the eventual solution of having her live next door to him becomes a nightmare of its own.
Daniel’s mother Ellen (Joan Allen) and stepfather Howard (David Cromer) live in cushioned comfort on the Upper East Side, but they are also heavily involved in Gladys’ life and health. Howard is gruff and warm, where Ellen—as many children like her—is torn between wanting to care for her ailing parent and falling apart because of the pressure it brings. Both Allen and Cromer are excellent.
The play doesn’t really move any of its characters from these moorings. Hedges will occasionally step out to the front of the stage to tell the audience about what has happened in certain leaps in time. But The Waverly Gallery mostly stays stately and in limbo.
Michael Cera appears too, in his third Lonergan play, as another slacker-type whose intentions you are never quite sure of. Here he plays an artist called Don, who turns up at the gallery needing to sell paintings, and a roof over his head.
Gladys is twinklingly happy to supply both, but the family are wary of him and his intent. Cera seems goofy, but also persistent. The tousled hair and easy-going burr barely disguises his determination to show and sell his work.
The play is studded between scenes by haunting black-and-white projections of New York City life from what looks like the ’50s and early ’60s. The play is set between 1989 and 1991, and the reason that the gallery is closing is because the hotel above it wants to co-opt the space. Gentrification is batting its space-invading wings.
The loss of Gladys’ life and space is underscored when we learn that the hotel does nothing with the space for a long time after Gladys has given it up. We see the cost to her life in brutal and urgent terms, and yet the financial forces that lie behind her enforced eviction and giving up of life see nothing of it.
This is tragic in itself, of course. But all the characters are set on a rinse-and-repeat sequence of impatience and anguish, which is very real when it comes to caring for a loved-one suffering from Alzheimer’s but adds up to a hollow-feeling act of theatre that isn’t sure if it wants its audience to laugh or cry, before queasily opting for both.
The Waverly Gallery is at Golden Theatre, New York City, through Jan. 27.