Sometimes death takes years. Gladys Green (Elaine May) is a former lawyer and Greenwich Village socialite who now spends her days in an art gallery she runs down the street from her apartment. Once a week she has dinner with her daughter (Joan Allen) and her daughter’s husband (David Cromer), and her grandson, Daniel (Lucas Hedges), lives next door to her. Gladys is genial and deaf and gradually losing control over her mind, and this tendency toward well-intentioned exhaustiveness absolutely drains everyone around her. The Waverly Gallery is a memory play, and Daniel is narrating her decline in retrospect. But in the present, he is sleepwalking through his life and relationships, unable to form connections beyond the one he cannot break with his grandmother. Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery, then, is infused with the kind of fatigued tension you feel in the silent stretches that follow a long and emotional fight. Except, since Gladys is unaware of the damage she is inflicting, there is no fight, no chance at catharsis—only a strained silence.
The Waverly Gallery is a serviceable tearjerker, one that clearly has a powerful effect on its audience: at the performance I attended, rows of middle-aged men and women remained in their seats, crying long after curtain call. But the real strength of this production is its performers. Gladys is a tricky part, since she understands emotionally what she cannot cognitively—clearly her presence is disruptive, and she can sense the tension, even if she doesn’t realize what’s causing it. May thus alternates between joyful innocence, as when she retells a decades-old story as if for the first time, and a combination of confusion, frustration, and anxiety: “Why are you trying to kill me?” she cries when the family begins moving her out of her apartment. Furthermore, the experience of watching May in the Golden Theatre—the very space where fifty years ago she commanded audiences for over three hundred performances with Mike Nichols—adds an additional richness to Lonergan’s exploration of changing minds and changing bodies.
Hedges, too, is superb, modest in his (spot-on) decision to play Daniel as the unassuming counterpart to his room-dominating grandmother; he often begins sentences without finishing them, holding up his hand as if to assert himself or hold his place before giving up and dropping it; the narration therefore provides Daniel with his only opportunity for sober reflection outside the interruptions of the large personalities that populate his family. Young actors, especially those better known for their film work, tend to be attracted to the loudest dramatic parts, and I admire Hedges for opting instead for subtlety. And Michael Cera, continuing his run of Lonergan plays, does a fine job with Don Bowman, the schlemiel painter from just outside Boston who is too fresh to realize that a show here isn’t exactly a high barometer of success in the New York art world. “I’ve been waiting for this day my whole life,” he beams as he surveys the empty gallery, all his unpurchased pictures still hanging on the wall. Ultimately, it is the harmony created between these first-rate actors, all extraordinarily generous to one another, that makes The Waverly Gallery essential viewing.