Theater Review: ‘The Waverly Gallery’ at John Golden Theater

By Jonathan Spira on 28 November 2018
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Gladys has a problem. Played with great poignancy and humor by the incomparable Elaine May in the Broadway production “The Waverly Gallery,” Gladys is a retired attorney cum social butterfly who, as a young housewife, moved to Germany with Herb, her husband; fled the National Socialist regime, returning to the States; built a successful law practice; had a family; bought a small apartment building in Greenwich Village; and opened a tiny art gallery on Waverly Place.

It is the last item that warrants mention and is the centerpiece of Kenneth Longergan’s thoughtful drama, “The Waverly Gallery,” currently playing at the John Golden Theater.

Gladys is in her 80s and slowing down, ostensibly due to a hearing problem but more so due to the scourge of dementia, which impacts some 14% of the U.S. population 71 years of age and older.

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Her loving grandson, played by Daniel Reed (Lucas Hedges in his Broadway debut), bears witness to his grandmother’s decline and also serves as the narrator of the play.

Gladys has been perfectly content to go to her gallery and watch television, although the TV broke at an unspecified time in the past, but she is lonely and there hasn’t exactly been a line out the door of artists seeking to hang their works there.

Enter Don Bowman, an endearingly clueless and incredibly untalented painter played with just the right amount of cluelessness by Michael Cora. Gladys is lonely and needs company; Don needs a showing of his work. It’s a match made in heaven.

As Gladys suffers the inevitable ravages that dementia inflicts on the brain, something the playwright’s own grandmother went through, he also tracks the decline of Greenwich Village, which had had the feel of a tight-knit community.

“The whole neighborhood is changing,” Gladys says repeatedly, clearly unaware that she is changing along with it, with the exception of her wardrobe as this lady is always immaculately dressed.

But Gladys has held onto her wit and woe to anyone who falls victim to that, including her tactless son-in-law and psychoanalyst Howard (David Cromer), who innocently observes that “it’s no fun getting old,” to which she pointedly responds: “Why do you always say that to me? Nobody wants to hear that! That’s not a helpful thing to say.”

The first act is more witty – witness light moments where Daniel describes the family as “liberal Upper West Side atheistic Jewish intellectuals…. who like German chorale music” – while the second act, as her dementia takes hold, is poignant and can trigger emotions in someone who has lost a family member to Alzheimer’s, such as myself.

When Gladys – with a touch of whimsy – describes the loneliness of her daughter’s dog, it’s clearly not just the dog she is talking about.

Ellen (Joan Allen), who dutifully attends to her mother’s needs, doesn’t want the same fate. Perhaps echoing my own mother’s sentiment about wishing to be floated out to sea on an iceberg in the manner of the Eskimos, she just wants a bullet to the head.

On stage, Daniel is clearly unsettled by watching his grandmother lose her grasp on reality. “Her mind was smashed to pieces, and the person she used to be hadn’t really been around for a long time,” he notes, adding that “the pieces were still her pieces.”

THE DETAILS

The Waverly Gallery
John Golden Theater
252 West 45th Street
New York, N.Y. 10036
www.thewaverlygalleryonbroadway.com

(Photos: Accura Media Group)

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