[Full article published in The Clyde Fitch Report, October 26, 2018.]
After a half-century absence, Elaine May has returned to Broadway, only to fade away before our eyes. Each beat of Kenneth Lonergan’s long sob of a play, The Waverly Gallery, buries her character, Greenwich Village denizen Gladys Green, a little more. All the while, each of the other characters memorialize her with loving recollections, before her off-stage death.
For fabled improviser and writer-director May, it’s a delectable return. And, fabulously, it is on stage at the same small-scale, old-fashioned house, the John Golden Theatre, where the world first met her (following Chicago’s embrace) in An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May in 1960.
Here in The Waverly Gallery, though, May’s trademark wit is subsumed into Gladys, whose dementia is causing her slow fade. Grandson Daniel (loving, patient Lucas Hedges) tells us this will be an end-of-life story; he’ll regularly punch through the fourth wall throughout the play.
While the design team — David Zinn (set), Leon Rothenberg (lights), Ann Roth (costumes) and Tal Yalden (projections) — ably serve the play’s reflective structure, the projections, in particular, underscore the long-ish scene changes and prolongs the narrative, placing us in the 1980s or more distant eras of Gladys’ memory.
Yet, like Yarden’s visuals, the character of Daniel — son of Gladys’ doctor-daughter Ellen (beleaguered, enduring Joan Allen) — may or may not be a necessary guide to Lonergan’s depictions. In fact, the playwright’s structure — presentation of details, enactment of illustrative moment, more presentation, more moment, presentation, moment, then a final narrative summary — mutes, strangely, the emotional punch of Gladys’ story. There are focused, resonant moments, to be sure, but sometimes we want to be closer to the parts of the story that occur off-stage, such as Ellen’s commitment to leaving her medical practice to take care of Gladys at home, or the last moments of Gladys’ life. Or else we want breaks for breath between some of the more intense scenes.