Monday, October 29, 2018

Review of "The Waverly Gallery"

The portrayal of a person descending into the depths of dementia is nothing new on the New York stage.  Most recently, Frank Langella won the 2016 Tony Award in The Father for depicting someone in such a state.  In The Waverly Gallery, a poignant, funny, and bittersweet examination of a family going through the throes of the syndrome, playwright Kenneth Lonergan treads through familiar territory while also adding fresh and affecting elements to a heartrendering story.

He is aided by the outstanding performance of Elaine May as Gladys, the elderly, independent woman who has become a difficult handful for her immediate family.   Ms. May anchors the production with a superb sense of timing, whether through simple observation or mile-a-minute chattering.

Gladys owns a small, not very successful art gallery on Waverly Place in Greenwich Village, a place she has run for decades.  While nominally a business it is really a place for her to spend time out of her cramped apartment.  Her immediate family, daughter Ellen (Joan Allen), her husband Howard (David Cromer) and grandson Daniel (Lucas Hedges) live on the Upper Westside of Manhattan and cope with her eccentricities and setbacks, sometimes with compassion, most often with anger and resentment.  A fifth character, Dan (Michael Cera), is also part of the mix.  An unaccomplished artist from Lynn, MA he happens upon the gallery where he ends up residing and becoming, in effect, an ex-officio member of the family and care team.  The everyday rhythm of Gladys’ days ultimately worsens, abetted by life-changing circumstances, until the inevitable end.

Kenneth Lonergan’s work plays against the usual presentations around a loved one with dementia.  Here, exasperation, irritation, and outright antagonism are front and center.  This is a loving family at wit’s end.  They have the financial means to provide for the aged Gladys, but their reserve of empathy and patience is almost exhausted.  The playwright astutely incorporates constant repetition by Gladys to demonstrate her diminishing capacities.  The circumlocutions eventually become tiresome, but what better way to dramatically portray the distressing existence felt by all those involved.  Lonerman also uses the character of Daniel to occasionally break the 4th wall of the theater by providing exposition and illumination.  The asides do not distract from the flow of the show.  They enrich and add clarity.

The cast is terrific.  Their strength is in how they overtly and subtly react and play off Ms. May as they all go through their everyday routines, as jumbled and as maddening as they may be.

Lila Neugebauer’s staging keeps the focus on Elaine May.  The actresses’ ramblings and histrionics are skillfully rendered, making them appear natural and unforced.  The use of overlapping dialogue has a spontaneity and genuineness to the action.  The director handles Daniel’s soliloquys to the audience with aplomb.  Sometimes it seems the characters shout too much, but that is from the perspective of an outsider looking into a world he has not experienced.

Scenic Designer David Zinn has created three relatively straightforward set pieces.  Their wizardry, though, is in the quickness with which they are transformed within a very short blackout.

The Waverly Gallery, a moving portrait of an all too familiar scenario with a bravo performance by Elaine May.

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