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An unflinching portrait of decline

January 15, 2019

By Peter McDermott

Elaine May in “The Waverly Place.” PHOTO: BRIGITTE LACOMBE

 

By Orla O’Sullivan

Elaine May is known as a comedy legend. In “The Waverly Gallery,” however, she charmingly drags the audience down to the cold and dark place where every human being must go.

The gallery in the play’s title is a fictitious one that May’s character, Gladys Green, opened in Greenwich Village as a diversion after she retired from life as a New York City lawyer. Its fate and hers will be entwined.

There’s very little dramatic build to the plot of Kenneth Lonergan’s 2001 Pulitzer-Prize nominee. Rather, we witness the relentless roll downhill of Gladys in this dialogue-driven play.

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Her decline is purely mental while her body stays strong to age 87. It’s slow, too slow for her busy, yet guilty family: a Jewish daughter who’s a doctor, living on the Upper West Side with her gentile second husband, a therapist.

There’s autobiographical resonance in Lonergan’s 19-year old play. Not only was he born in New York to a doctor-father of Irish descent and a Jewish-psychiatrist mother, he wrote speeches for the Environmental Protection Agency, as does Gladys’s grandson.

She still can’t shake Daniel’s past role as a journalist and one of her comedic, frequently repeated questions is, “Ye still workin’ for the newspaper?”

That sets up another running joke. The final character, Don, an artist, as out of it in his own way as Gladys, awaits the write-up in the New York Times that is all he believes he lacks. (Michael Cera was perfectly deadpan).

Humorous moments aside, it’s hard also for all to watch the time-lapsed image of Gladys, becoming unrecognizable. Her narrator-grandson, played by Lucas Hedges, who was the orphaned boy in Lonergan’s recent Oscar-winning film, “Manchester by the Sea,” describes it. “Her mind was in pieces… and yet the pieces were all her.” (A little upbeat philosophy offered at the end did not negate a fellow theatre-goer’s overheard assessment: “That was so depressing!”)

Still, it was wonderful to see May, who was captivating, especially in the charming opening scene with Daniel where Gladys somewhat echoes Joan Rivers. (May got a big round of applause upon first appearing on stage.)

She looked wonderful, certainly not 86, but in later scenes, vulnerable in a thin nightdress clinging to her frail frame, you have a better sense of her age.

The lobby also tells the tale, showing posters of 1960 when May was at the same theatre with Mike Nichols, part of a Grammy-winning comedy duo. (Lengthy credits in her “Playbill” bio conclude, “She has done more but this is enough”).

A nice design touch further tells how the Village has changed over those years, something Gladys laments. The screen that comes down between lavishly rendered scenes (scenic design, David Zinn) plays old black-and-white footage of New York, gradually coming up to the present day.

This early work of Lonergan’s is hardly his best, but worth the experience of the dialogue and, certainly, May.

In the larger-than-life character of Gladys he captures something universal about an experience we are all destined to share.

I felt I was watching my own mother, from the oversized hairbrush coming out of the handbag that was her obsession, to repeatedly feeding the dog against prohibitions, favorite pronouncements (“she [the dog] knows what we’re thinking,”) and asking questions without waiting for answers—which is maybe just as well.

“The Waverly Gallery,” by Kenneth Lonergan, starring Elaine May, with Lucas Hedges and multiple Oscar-winner Joan Allen is at The John Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th St. until Jan. 27. Tickets at https://thewaverlygalleryonbroadway.com

 

11th annual fest

Origin’s 1st Irish kicked off with a party and the first witty ad-lib of this year’s theatre festival (for full coverage, see the print edition of this week’s Echo).

Vice Consul General Kerry O’Sullivan cited a past endorsement of the festival by former President Bill Clinton, jokingly introducing her quote to the gathering: “I’m not an actor or a writer so I robbed it. I’ve a feeling the person who said it might have, too.”

This is the 11th year of the festival, which included a once-off reading of short plays last Sunday.

Maybe there was a hint of what’s to come in year 12? The plays are part of the Breaking Ground Series, a showcase for new writing.

Journalist and creative writer Sadhbh Walshe was one of those who addressed this year’s topical theme of migration.Returning to this segment of the festival were playwright Honor Molloy and actor Sarah Street, who last year debuted a striking piece to illustrate the opioid crisis.

 

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