The mere sight of Elaine May on stage, although she is now 86, inevitably recalls her earlier days for those of us who saw and enjoyed May and Mike Nichols honing their sophisticated comedy routines. The excellent timing she exhibited then is still in place in her line delivery, but now she is putting her talent to use in delineating the tragedy of the woman whom she plays plunging deeper and deeper into dementia in the revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s play “The Waverly Gallery.” May is triumphant in her dramatic venture, displaying remarkable acting talent at a new level in her long, distinguished career that has included writing and directing. It is one of the season’s performances not to be missed.
The play, impeccably directed by Lila Neugebauer with mounting tension to match the increasing desperation, offers a sad example of what many families go through when a member is plagued with dementia that makes it nearly impossible to cope in an effort to be loyal and not take the option of depositing a loved one in a care facility.
Elaine May is remarkable as Gladys Green, a former lawyer who operates an undistinguished art gallery in Greenwich Village. She is not only losing her memory but rattles on with repetitive questions, frustration, anger and increasingly not being able to function. May gives us a step by step descent into her mental hell, and yet as sad as the situation is, there is morbid humor in some of her remarks, all the more telling because of May’s in-depth interpretation of a victim innocently expressing her bewilderment.
Lucas Hedges as Gladys’s grandson, Daniel, assumes the role of narrator as he steps forward toward the audience and periodically fills us in on what’s been happening. Appearing early in the play, Michael Cera becomes increasingly effective as an aspiring but not very talented artist, Dan Bowman, who tries to fulfill his dream of having a gallery show, and Gladys agrees to display his paintings as well as permit him to live in the gallery. Things get complicated as the landlord delivers a closing notice in his plan to convert the gallery space into a café-restaurant. Gladys, of course, has no way of coping with the situation let alone understanding what’s going on.
Joan Allen gives a poignant performance as Ellen, Gladys’s daughter, who tries her best to look after her mother as the illness worsens, and David Cromer is excellent as Ellen’s supportive husband, Howard, who tries to help as much as he can. There are particularly frustrating scenes, as Gladys, with no sense of time, wanders out of her apartment to awaken Daniel in the middle of the night in his neighboring apartment.
There are, of course, varying forms of dementia. An acquaintance of mine has been a cipher for many years and is getting around-the-clock home care. But Gladys is a person who keeps talking incessantly and drives everyone crazy. The behavior can also grate on the audience at some points, but the bursts of humor are alleviating, and the pathos is always sharply delineated to produce maximum sympathy, not only for Gladys, but for those caring for her. Lonergan has written a play that may be especially tough to take for those who have had to deal with family members with dementia. But he has succeeded in dramatizing the problem with admirable effectiveness, enhanced by the sharp character portrayals, especially that rendered by the amazing Elaine May. At the Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street. Reviewed October 28, 2018.