Monday, November 5, 2018

The Waverly Gallery and the Ineffable Elaine May

Elaine May in The Waverly Gallery. (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)

Since her early days with Mike Nichols, Elaine May has occupied a magical space where high comedy overlaps with revue-sketch comedy. At eighty-six she still possesses the combination of qualities that made her Nichols’ inspired collaborator and that made her a rara avis in movies like In the Spirit and Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks: razor wit, a loopy, uncategorizable presence, an insistent if quirky humanity, and the impulse to take wild leaps of imagination, sometimes linking traits of character that we don’t expect to find together. She always seems self-invented – as if what we see on screen or on stage is the living embodiment of her writing style. (You could say the same about Christopher Durang, which is the reason that, if you’ve seen him in a role he’s written for himself, it’s so tough to get his voice out of your head when someone else plays it.) As Gladys Green, the New York-Jewish gallery owner she plays in Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery, who is sinking into dementia, the pixieish May gives an enchanting performance. One might say that watching her is like getting a master class in acting, but the fact is that she’s so weirdly unlike anyone else that you could hardly tell a young actor to go and do likewise. The only actress I can think of who’s remotely like her is her gifted daughter, Jeannie Berlin, whose career May ignited by giving her the role of the abandoned bride in her unconventional 1972 romantic comedy The Heartbreak Kid.

In Lila Neugebauer’s Broadway revival of Lonergan’s 1999 play, May is surrounded by a talented, funny cast, led by Lucas Hedges as Gladys’s grandson Daniel Reed, who narrates the play and Joan Allen as her daughter Ellen Fine, an analyst married (for the second time) to another analyst, Howard (the lauded stage director David Cromer). The fifth character, played by Michael Cera in his third Lonergan play in a row, is a young, socially awkward artist named Don Bowman who comes by Gladys’s gallery with a cache of his paintings and finds, to his astonishment, that she wants to give him a show. And then, learning he has nowhere to live, she puts him up in the back room of her gallery (to the confusion of her offstage landlord). The acting is fine across the board, and for the first act the dialogue is sharp and the chaos created by the simultaneous conversations occasioned by Gladys’s participation – since she can’t always hear what’s being said to her, she finds it increasingly difficult to understand what’s going on and she keeps repeating herself – is impressively orchestrated by Neugebauer and rendered by the quintet of performers.

Unfortunately, most of the humor drains away after intermission, and The Waverly Gallery turns into one of those sentimental pieces that audiences are always happy to take to their hearts because they pretend to expose home truths about the human condition.  (The big home truth in this play is that dementia gets worse and tears up not only the afflicted parent or grandparent but everyone in the family.) I often love Lonergan’s work, both for the stage (This Is Our Youth) and for the movies (Margaret, Manchester by the Sea), but The Waverly Gallery doesn’t add up to a play. It wasn’t his first  – This Is Our Youth preceded it by four years – but it feels like it. It didn’t really merit a new production two decades after Lonergan wrote it (and after it was produced, first at Williamstown and then off Broadway, with Eileen Heckart as Gladys), but the opportunity to see Elaine May more than justifies the revival.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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