By: Isa Goldberg
November 23, 2018: What? Elaine May on Broadway? You bet – in the Broadway debut of Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery, which premiered Off Broadway in 2000.
As we know, May, the ‘50s comedienne, made her mark defying stereotypes of women’s roles, portraying herself through characters that were sophisticated, professional women, such as doctors and psychiatrists. Here, she portrays Gladys Green, an independent business person, the owner of the titular art gallery, and a woman whose brightest years are behind her.
May’s shimmering presence, her graceful elegant appearance and Yiddish mannerisms are precious to watch. Her tragic flaw, that she’s become hard of hearing, and can’t communicate very well heralds her downfall. Humorously, her constant iterations of the agitating “What?” stirs the battle over the hearing aid, with others turning it up so that she can turn it down.
While there are glimpses of Gladys as a quirky, even buoyant gallery owner, Lonergan’s drama is about her descent into dementia. It’s not fun to watch the demise of such a focused and well-honed character – one that she built over decades, and which falls down, simply from years of wear.
As her dutiful daughter Ellen Fine, Joan Allen tries to resonate sweetly enough with family life, at least as it prevails in their privileged Upper West Side digs. She finds herself sandwiched between love and resentment.
Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) makes his Broadway debut as the gentle albeit unaspiring son. Not only does he narrate the play’s action sensitively, explicating the progression of Gladys’ failing mental life, he’s also the most compassionate family member.
On the other hand, David Cromer as Ellen’s husband portrays a staid psychiatrist, whose interactions with others epitomize what it’s like to fall short of remarkable. He’s there, but like everyone else, he can’t do anything.
At the center of it all, Michael Cera channels the role of the artist, who in spite of his New England clumsiness, paints the kind of realistic scenes that Lonergan so famously champions in his plays. Everyday life is everyday life. And Lonergan’s gift for capturing us in the quotidian, albeit hurtful world is the strength of this drama.
Cera, who made his Broadway debut in Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth, topping it with his portrayal of the security guard in last season’s Broadway premiere of Lobby Hero is the playwright’s foremost interpreter, playing characters who do not necessarily possess extraordinary qualities. To the contrary, his high voice, and happy slacker attitude speaks to the fabric of the everyman.
New York City, where Lonergan’s plays are set, (David Zinn, designer) is a great front for the ordinary, because there is so much obviously hiding behind it. And Cera’s Don Bowman delights in seeing himself as the struggling Village artist. Living in his car, visiting the Waverly where his works are on display, chugging a couple of beers with the guys, and imagining that this is success.
That director Lila Neugebauer keeps us enwrapped in a story about life’s decline is a remarkable achievement. She plumbs the depth of Lonergan’s seemingly simple story, in which language fails to bind us.
The Waverly Gallery *****
252 West 45 Street, NYC
Oct. 25—Jan. 27, 2019
Tuesday 7pm, Wedesday 2pm & 8pm, Thursday 7pm, Friday 8pm, Saturday 2pm & 8pm, Sunday 8pm.
(212) 239-6200. www.telecharge.com.
Photography: Bridgitt LaCombe