Wednesday, November 7, 2018

REVIEW: The Waverly Gallery

Review of the Saturday, November 3, 2018 matinee performance at the John Golden Theatre in New York City. Starring Elaine May, Lucas Hedges, Joan Allen, Michael Cera and David Cromer. Written by Kenneth Lonergan. Scenic design by David Zinn. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Costume design by Ann Roth. Sound design by Leon Rothenberg. Direction by Lila Neugebauer. 2 hours, 15 minutes, including one intermission.

Grade: A+

Kenneth Lonergan's Pulitzer Prize-finalist play, The Waverly Gallery, has finally arrived on Broadway, and it was certainly worth the wait. Save for the occasional direct address to the audience, the work is harsh in its realistic naturalism.  The characters talk over each other, often changing subject mid-sentence (and not just its suffering main character), and frequently in a maddening monotone that forces you to pay even more attention to the actors for visual clues as to how the characters are actually feeling. Most of the time, it feels like we are observing lives through a window. I imagine it was difficult rehearsing this play, nearly devoid of oral artifice and "theatricality." And a lot of credit for making it so compelling from start to finish must go to director Lila Neugebauer. What a debut. It is amazing that such a heartbreaking play can also be so entertaining.

David Zinn's meticulously detailed settings easily evoke a Greenwich Village in transition in the late 80's/early 90's, and Ann Roth's costumes are equally evocative. Between scenes, Tal Yarden's projections offer up memories of a New York City of other times, fading in on one one of the wall, filling it up, then fading away on the other end. Some are fuzzy, others are from odd points of view, and one is particularly clear and lasts the longest, but fades out the fastest. We are watching dementia play out in front of us. A nice touch.

Though his metaphors are occasionally obvious (an anxious dog vying for attention while everyone ignores it, for example), Lonergan's play is a brave mix of sentimentality and harsh reality. This family (and an unsuspecting stranger) shows all of the varying strains of life dealing with the slow, agonizing decline of a sweet woman suffering from dementia.  The assembled cast nails these variations - the highs and lows, the frustration and rare happy moment. The result is a thoroughly engrossing, emotional ride that will leave you spent but thrilled.

Frequent Lonergan interpreter Michael Cera has a tough assignment. He's the outsider who is painfully oblivious - both in his ridiculous optimism that he'll be a successful artist, despite a lack of patrons, and his refusal to see that his benefactress isn't as deaf as she is losing her mental faculties. Cera's delivery allows us to be annoyed and interested in him. Actor-director David Cromer bridges the gap between fed up and pragmatic as the husband married into this escalating crisis. He's funny in his directness and sweet in his gentle handling of his ailing mother-in-law.

After a couple of days of reflection, I find myself frequently thinking of Joan Allen's gripping, raw honesty. As the daughter of the victim, she is a ball of exposed nerves who uses an array of coping techniques just to keep her emotions in check and still survive. We see it all: cruel lashing out in frustration, removing herself tearfully from the scene, wistfully looking at her mother for any sign of improvement or even a few seconds of clarity. Then there's the heartbreaking moment when she admits out loud that she wishes her mother would die - a statement that is equal parts compassion for all the suffering and selfish desire for all of it to be over at last. The house was filled with sniffles and stifled sobs as she finally broke down then felt an almost immediate sense of guilt.

Making his Broadway debut is Oscar nominee (for Lonergan's Manchester By the Sea) Lucas Hedges. He's the narrator/playwright stand-in who shares the primary caregiver duties with his mother by living next door to his failing grandmother. Hedges' low key performance mirrors his character's desire for calm normalcy - he constantly refers to things he does with her in repetition, and you get that that repetition is as much for him as it is for her. Watching him struggle with ignoring her for his own sanity, and almost always caving in because he loves her so much is heartbreaking. This is a fine debut, and I hope we see more of him on stage and soon.

Of course, the draw here is really Elaine May, who is, indeed, every bit the legend everyone claims she is. She is giving one of those performances that people will be talking about for decades. It was truly a privilege to witness this live. Watching her being simultaneously fragile and strong is as thrilling as it is devastating. Perhaps the most amazing thing about her performance is just how natural it is. This is that rare performance where one can honestly say it is as if she isn't even acting. She shook me to my core, leaving me physically aching with sadness. Ms. May has set the bar a step higher.

What an absolute thrill.


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