Kenneth Lonergan accomplishes a feat of mimesis with his text for Gladys (the masterful Elaine May), who manages a genteelly unsuccessful art gallery on New York’s Waverly Place and who is gradually succumbing to dementia. It’s a work that calls for virtuosic concentration on the part of May and her scene partners, with her false starts, repetitions, wanderings into her receding memories, and numberless offers to feed the family dog.
The narrative drive of the play, such as it is, is provided by Don (the effective Michael Cera), a young painter from the Boston suburbs, equally unsuccessful, whom Gladys befriends and offers to represent.
As Gladys slips deeper into her shadow world, her verbal improvisations become more transparent (even to her, perhaps): passing a platter of cheese at Don’s gallery opening, she offers, “Would you like some— —of this?” When Don must return to Boston for a few days, Gladys mercurially rejects him, calling him “sneaky.” This is good stuff, grounded in reality. (So much so that I began to suspect that Lonergan had been in attendance during a few choice interactions that I have personally been party to.)
Unfortunately, the play’s structure is marred by direct address narration by Gladys’s grandson Daniel (Lucas Hedges), who fills in some of the events between scenes. While Hedges is perfectly fine in his scenes with Gladys and family, his flat line readings during the fourth wall-breaking passages leads us to the conclusion that the play would be better without them.
Joan Allen as Ellen, Daniel’s mother and Gladys’s daughter, has some good moments, starting the play at a 3 of rattled by Gladys and gradually building to an 8 of frantic as she becomes unmanageable.
The play calls for four playing spaces, three of them realized in quite realistic detail by David Zinn and his team. When the art gallery was hung with Don’s paintings, I was a bit puzzled: what we see on stage, albeit quite personal and figurative, is quite skillful. Wasn’t it the point that Don is a self-deluded bad painter? Similarly, the ground plan led to some less than smooth blocking choices.
This play is a thoughtful story of loss, with some good comic bits (the schtick with adjusting a hearing aid is well timed, and not overdone) and a standout performance by May. But too much tell without show says that it would work better in a different medium.
- The Waverly Gallery, by Kenneth Lonergan, directed by Lila Neugebauer, Golden Theatre, New York