A memory play about memory loss, Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery—performed off-Broadway in 2000 with Eileen Heckart—is a moving showcase for the legendary Elaine May’s gifts.
May—half of the Nichols and May comedy team who’s had a lively career in writing, directing, and acting—plays Gladys Green, a widow who runs an art gallery but who is losing track of the details of her life. Whether conversing with her grandson (Lucas Hedges) or her daughter and son-in-law (Joan Allen and David Cromer), Gladys tends to babble, repeat herself, delve into old fogeyisms about how things have changed, and flat out forget what she’s talking about or where she is. This becomes more pronounced as time goes by, as the family of “liberal Upper West Side atheistic Jewish intellectuals” veers from annoyance to anger to resigned compassion in dealing with her awful condition.
The cast—which also includes Michael Cera as a sad sack artist who ends up commenting on the spiraling of civilization—is very good and Hedges does the best he can with the rather colorless role of the grandson/narrator who keeps reminding Gladys that he doesn’t work for a newspaper, but for an environmental agency. (They could retitle this Grandma Erased.) But Elaine is pretty much the whole show to the point where you miss her when she’s offstage, even though it’s as painful to watch her succumb to Alzheimer’s as it would be to spend time with a mentally lost relative.
We’ve seen declining older characters on Broadway before, like Frank Langella’s 80-year-old ex-dancer with dementia in 2016’s The Father and Glenda Jackson’s bitter and imperious 90-something in last year’s Three Tall Women revival. Both deservedly won Tony awards, and May matches them, bringing adorableness to the role rather than heighten any shrewish elements, thereby making the impatience of those around her seem even more heartless. Whether searching for her keys over and over again or touching her hearing aid in a way she’d been warned would be detrimental, May commands the stage with humor, honor, and heart-tugging confusion.
The strongest development is when Ellen (Allen) learns to become more pliant with her mother, which helps bond her to her own son (Hedges) as they try to cling onto their connection and not let it slip, knowing the horror that fate can bring. The result may not be a great play, but it’s a great showcase, and as directed by Lila Neugebauer with some overlapping dialogue and fuzzy-memory projections when the set’s being changed, it lets us remember how divine Elaine May is.