The Waverly Gallery, on Broadway for the first time twenty years after its premiere, shows off playwright Kenneth Lonergan’s well-honed ability to craft naturalistic dialogue. But in chronicling how dementia comes to dominate a woman’s indomitable spirit, he fails to translate that skill into convincing character study or compelling family drama.
From the moment we meet the voluble Gladys Green (Elaine May), talking a mile a minute in the gallery space that gives the play its title, we can already sense her unavoidable decline. We know it long before her grandson, Daniel Reed (Lucas Hedges, making a strong Broadway debut), breaks the fourth wall to tell us directly. Daniel intermittently serves as a tour guide through the final years of his grandmother’s life, as she becomes more reliant on her family’s help – and more of a burden to those she loves.
It’s a familiar tale, one culled from Lonergan’s own life, and one that will surely resonate with a large segment of the audience. (At the performance I attended, many sitting near me nodded in frequent recognition, and intermission conversations centered on comparing Gladys to various relatives). But surprisingly for a writer with such a keen ear for the quotidian, Lonergan often seems more than happy to wallow in the bathetic. More distressingly, The Waverly Gallery feels at once pandering and oddly remote.
The play aims for a kind of universality. When Daniel’s mother, Ellen Fine (Joan Allen), mutters under her breath that Gladys’s logorrheic behavior makes her want to blow her brains out, we’re meant to sympathize and recognize ourselves in that desperation. And when Daniel puts himself in a hair shirt over the times he wasn’t the most diligent grandson, sometimes ducking behind parked cars so as not to be detected by her, his guilt should grab us. There but for the grace of God, go I, these anecdotes implore – or, more piquantly, this will be you someday.
But too-glib Waverly Gallery doesn’t tell a universal story. Being a caregiver is hard no matter what hand life has dealt you, but there’s a level of privilege at work here that goes largely unexamined. Ellen and her husband, Howard Fine (David Cromer, in a fine return to acting after several direction-focused years), are both successful doctors; they’re the kind of people who’d be quick to say they’re comfortable, not rich. This, of course, means they’re doing more than fine in the financial department, and that makes a difference in the care of a progressively declining parent.
When Gladys can no longer inject her morning insulin without drawing too much blood, the family hires a nurse, no questions asked. The question of how to afford the nurse never comes up, because it’s immaterial. And the other issues surrounding Gladys’s deterioration – like moving her to Ellen and Howard’s Upper West Side apartment from Greenwich Village – are mostly viewed through the prism of how they might inconvenience everyone. But surely a successful physician like Ellen, who never once in the play mentions potentially having to leave her career to take on full-time caregiver duties, would bring in round-the-clock care, an option open to very few.
The only sense of class consciousness arrives in the form of Don Bowman, played with understated charm by Lonergan veteran Michael Cera. The last artist to receive a show at Gladys’s gallery, he’s presented as scrappy and struggling; Daniel says in an aside that “he came to the city with an expensive car and no money.” When the windows of that expensive car are smashed, Don doesn’t know how he’ll pay to fix them in order to get home to Massachusetts. That question never gets answered – despite a fair amount of stage time, Don remains on the periphery. He isn’t family.
My annoyance at how Lonergan presents the family perspective forced me to consider how poorly he defines most of the characters. Despite a fine performance from Allen, Ellen as written emerges as little more than a ball of anxiety and exasperation. She fulfills a familiar trope in these kinds of stories, the goodhearted-but-harried adult child with the weight of the world on her shoulders. Allen seizes on a detail that Gladys often repeats – that Ellen is shy – and uses that to portray her as stoic. It’s a smart choice, but it cannot erase Lonergan’s rather cheap characterization of a frustrated daughter on the verge of mental collapse.
In contrast, Hedges has better material to work with, perhaps because Daniel is the authorial stand-in. He manages the character’s hair-trigger emotional shifts with practiced ease, believably moving from quiet sympathy to incontinent rage to crushing guilt. And although Daniel’s soliloquies are largely unnecessary (as we can clearly see what he’s explaining to us) Hedges performs them with conviction.
Every actor in the production does good work individually, but it sometimes feels like a series of star turns rather than a cohesive ensemble. Lila Neugebauer’s clumsy direction results in a family dynamic that doesn’t click. Dinner-table scenes that should ooze well-oiled rapport instead seem like awkward early rehearsals. And May’s performance grows increasingly siloed as the play progresses – not by Gladys’s worsening dementia, but by her inclination to perform directly to the audience rather than to her scene partners. It’s surprising to see one of the pioneers of improvisation – a genre that lives and dies on immediacy and interconnectedness – so isolated inside the scene.
A number of other production elements struggle to cohere, from the overlong projections (by Tal Yarden) that play during scene changes – and look like bland b-roll from a Ken Burns documentary – to Gabriel Kahane’s mawkish incidental music, which sounds like something that would underscore a PBS telethon. David Zinn’s gallery set looks too polished and professional for what’s essentially meant to be a nondescript hole-in-the-wall, and Ann Roth’s costumes strike the eye as too contemporary (the play is set between 1989 and 1991). Only Brian MacDevitt’s hazy lighting gets the memory-play effect just right.
The Waverly Gallery aspires to The Glass Menagerie but ends up closer to This is Us. Instead of a gut punch, I felt like my nose had been rubbed in a pile of smug sentimentality.