The Broadway premiere of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize Finalist play The Waverly Gallery, a memory play by Academy Award winner Kenneth Lonergan, finally celebrates its Broadway premiere at the Golden Theatre.
Anyone who has been through the heartbreaking loss of a loved one to dementia will find a deep connection to this moving drama, especially to the outstanding performance of Grammy Award winner and Oscar & Golden Globe nominee Elaine May as Gladys Green. One half of the legendary comedy duo Nichols and May, she returns to the same Broadway theatre where An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May ran for over 300 performances from October 1960. And what an auspicious return it has been.
Gladys' gradual decline over the course of the play is brilliantly portrayed in a highly nuanced performance that is sure to be worthy of Tony Award contention. Equally as touching and as impressive is the relationship depicted with her grandson, Daniel, exceptionally executed by Academy Award nominee Lucas Hedges, who also functions in the dual role of our narrator, frequently breaking the fourth wall to guide us through his intimate thoughts and fill in any gaps in the narrative along the way. Daniel's connection to his grandmother is unquestionably driven by unconditional love, but - in all too human ways - it is also a three-dimensional one that induces frustration, desperation and a need for self-preservation. In this respect, Oscar & Golden Globe nominee Joan Allen is also a standout as Ellen, Gladys' daughter, unable to cope with her mother's dementia for much of the piece. Ms. Allen's performance is laced with anger and almost a kind of resentment and yet she still manages to draw empathy from the audience, well before she finally accepts the burden ahead of her towards the play's conclusion.
These three phenomenal actors, portraying three generations of a family in crisis, are supported by two additional members of the cast - Tony Award-winning director David Cromer, who makes a return to acting as Howard, Ellen's husband, and Tony Award nominee Michael Cera, taking on the role of Don Bowman, a lost soul of an artist, who Gladys takes into her Waverly Gallery to shelter and to display his work. For these two characters, the relationship to Gladys' predicament is of a less emotionally invested one and this provides an interesting juxtaposition in the drama. For others, life goes on. Other people are absorbed in their own little world of dilemmas, as you are left to go through the pain of seeing a family member deteriorate before your very eyes. Cera and Cromer also provide the comic relief moments of the play through Cera's trademark socially awkward character expertise and Cromer's hard-headed, matter-of-fact approach.
Through Lonergan's well-crafted script and Lila Neugebauer's fluid direction, the cast converse in an extremely naturalistic way, often speaking over each other and at times, the interactions seem almost improvised. The effect reminds us that this is real life with real people experiencing sadly all too real problems. It feels as unpredictable as Gladys' behaviour itself and keeps us on the edge of our seats as a result.
During sometimes lengthy scene changes, the audience is treated to archive, black-and-white projections of Greenwich Village and New York City that then fade away like Gladys' memories themselves. A beautiful touch to a beautifully acted and emotionally devastating piece of theatre.
The Waverly Gallery originally premiered at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in August 1999, before opening Off-Broadway at the Promenade Theatre in March 2000.
(Photos by Brigitte Lacombe)