By Tulis McCall

Entering the Golden Theatre to see The Waverly Gallery, with Elaine May, I could not help but be reminded that a few months ago I was in that same theatre to see Three Tall Women featuring another octogenarian, Glenda Jackson.  The comparison is not without merit, although the two characters these fine actors portray are light years apart.  One is laser sharp chronicler of life and the other is, well, falling to pieces as we watch.  And, although it is a sad slide, watching Ms. May navigate the splotchy fading verbal path down which her Gladys Green is careening is a thing of rare and exquisite beauty.

I never knew anything was the matter, Gladys tells her grandson Daniel (Lucas Hedges).  This seems to be the recurring thought that slides in and out of the doorways and windows, from underneath the beds, and dropped in through the mail slot.  It is a condition that is familial.  No one “knows” anything is the matter with Gladys until the horse is out of the barn wandering about in the north pasture.

By the time we are invited on this journey, Gladys is already in decline.  Even so, she is still managing the Waverly Gallery off Washington Square.  She has been doing this for over 2 decades.  And while this is 1989, Gladys would prefer it was the 60’s when she was vibrant and life was filled with parties and people.

Her daughter Ellen (Joan Allen) lives uptown on the West Side with her second husband Howard (David Cromer).  Gladys is a regular at their apartment on Wednesday nights for dinner, and this is where we first see the entire family together.  Here the alarm bells are in full-throated voice with Gladys repeating herself on subjects that have formed a rut in her memory bank but are of no interest to anyone else. But not loud enough.  For some reason she is still being left on her own to navigate her life.  This includes taking her own medication, remembering to eat, and walking from her West Village to The Waverly Gallery around the corner.

Into this mix, for some reason, is dropped a lost soul, Don Bowman (Michael Cera).  Don is a painter from Lynn, Massachusetts who is looking for a gallery to take his work.  He has had no luck until now.  Gladys not only provides a friendly ear, but she provides him with a tour of her life and the gallery and, more importantly, a place to hang his work.  And not for nuthin’ – he gets a tiny room to sleep in while he looks for something better that is certain not to come along.  Why Don is in this story is never made clear.

From here we pretty much chug down hill.  Gladys’ edges fray more and more with each scene, as do the nerves of her daughter in particular.  Daniel – who speaks directly to the audience from time to time – lives in the same apartment building as Gladys and is witness to the daily details that reveal his grandmother’s undoing.

Lucas Hedges and Elaine May in The Waverly Gallery; Photo by Brigitte Lacomb

Kenneth Lonergan‘s dialogue has a beautiful rhythm to it as the planets around Gladys both reflect and revile her.  This is not something anyone wants to be part of.  It is too painful to look at.  It is too painful to look away.  Repetitions devolve into resignation.  Gladys speaks in wisps of logic that are only connected because they slip out of her mind and into her mouth.  With each utterance the family is presented with a fresh alarm that they must handle.  And with each step they take together they are reminded of their own mortality and the passages that have yet to be discovered.

The plot, however, lands with a thud.  We meet Gladys when she has already showing signs of dementia, and her ultimate fate is only degrees away.  This Gladys is already beyond reach.  And yet she is left on her own with only her grandson as a daily observer. He admits to us that he has begun to avoid her: It’s not that I didn’t like her. I did. It’s just that once you went in there, it was kind of tough getting out again. So I was pretty stingy with the visits.  The family is beyond slow on the uptake, and the presence of Don is without purpose.  Who is leading this parade?  No one.

In addition, why do we never see the Gladys who was?  Her vibrance and daring are only things of legend – ones told to the artist Don Bower for no apparent reason (for our edification of course).  Having been through this with both my parents I know that part of the heartache is not only dealing with the crazy-making details of monitoring the details of the needed care.  It is also remembering who this person used to be.  It is that confluence that sets your world teetering off its axis.  Seeing what Ms. May conjured up as a woman in decline, I can only imagine how she would have gloried as a woman in her good old days.  As it is, many of the scenes feel concocted.

And finally, this play ended way before it ended.  In a poignant departure from a Wednesday night dinner after a kerfuffle that got out of hand she says, I don’t understand what happened! Herb and I had a good life! We had a good life.. !… I don’t understand what happened to me.

What is left to say after that?  Not much, but the story stretches out for another 20-30 minutes during which there is no new news.  The play eventually stops because Gladys does.  This is a puzzling and disappointing final-final.

Still, Elaine May is the real deal and worth the trip.  You will not forget watching her make magic.

THE WAVERLY GALLERY by Kenneth Lonergan, : Directed by Lila Neugebauer.

WITH: Joan Allen, Michael Cera, David Cromer, Lucas Hedges and Elaine May

Sets, David Zinn; costumes, Ann Roth; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Leon Rothenberg; projections, Tal Yarden; production stage manager, Charles Means.

PRODUCTION: A presentation by Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, Columbia Live Stage, Eric Falkenstein, Suzanne Grant, James L. Nederlander, Universal Theatrical Group, John Gore Organization, Len Blavatnik, Peter May, Stephanie P. McClelland, Benjamin Lowy, Al Nocciolino, Patty Baker, Jamie deRoy, Wendy Federman, Barbara H. Freitag, Heni Koenigsberg, David Mirvish, True Love Productions, Executive Producers Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, & John Johnson; Through January 27.