The word flawless is bandied about liberally these days, but it may be soberly and properly used to describe Eileen Heckart in Kenneth Lonergan’s new play “The Waverly Gallery.” As a woman descending by degrees into senility, Heckart gives a meticulous, truthful and utterly unsentimental performance, perfectly depicting a feisty, intelligent woman’s loosening grasp on her faculties. Anyone who has lived through this sad process with a relative will be awed by the verisimilitude of both Heckart’s acting and Lonergan’s writing.
Therein, however, lies both the major accomplishment and the fatal flaw of the play. For all its poignant accuracy, “The Waverly Gallery” is more a scrupulously observed situation than a drama. (In this respect it has a certain amount in common with Lonergan’s previous Off Broadway hit, “This Is Our Youth.”) The life trauma being depicted has an inherent pathos, certainly, and in Lonergan’s hands, no small amount of comic potential. And yet, while Lonergan mines his subject with delicacy and plenty of wit, he runs out of dramatic ore well before the evening’s end.
Heckart plays Gladys Green, whose days are passed in her somewhat dilapidated Greenwich Village art gallery, where paintings always outnumber customers these days. She is frequently visited by our narrator, her grandson Daniel (Josh Hamilton), who lives nearby in an apartment opposite Gladys’ own. Daniel’s affection for his grandmother is strong, but he can’t always hide his irritation at her increasing deafness, her circular conversations, her sometimes distasteful obsessions. The latest is the Village’s apparent invasion by Koreans — the liberal firebrand who was once a Party member is now appalled by the influx of foreigners and blacks in the neighborhood.
Dinners with Gladys at Daniel’s mother’s apartment are endurance tests. Gladys carries on her own one-sided conversations while Daniel, his mother Ellen (Maureen Anderman) and his stepfather Howard (Mark Blum) try desperately to remain placid and accommodating, despite having to talk in a field-marshal holler. Gladys can’t leave her hearing aid alone, but she doesn’t want to miss out on anything.
The mixture of affection and frustration that sits on the pained faces of Gladys’ family, the determined manner in which they try (and often fail) to maintain their equilibrium in the face of her inadvertent irritations, are acutely and painfully reproduced by the top-notch cast. Lonergan’s ear for Gladys’ addled conversational tics and the lowest-common-denominator sentences her family uses to address her is perfect. And director Scott Ellis orchestrates the ordered comic chaos of these exchanges with seamless finesse.
But the play consists of virtually nothing but these painful-funny exchanges, which only grow more painful as Gladys’ mental state worsens. (The exceptions are conversations among her family and the play’s other character — a deluded painter she befriends — about Gladys’ dilemma, including an eye-glazer in which they fondly let us know about the wonderfully quirky woman she was once upon a time.) There is a limit to the number of times we can laugh at the havoc caused by Gladys’ non sequiturs or miscommunications, and a limit to the sympathy with which we can observe her family’s attempts to keep her mobile and independent, despite the demands it places on them.
“The Waverly Gallery” pushes well past those limits. Dare I confess that by the play’s end I was ready to sign the dear old thing’s commitment papers myself? This unsettling effect may be intentional, and it’s certainly a testament to Lonergan’s ability to accurately reproduce in the audience the torments the family faces, but who goes to the theater to feel annoyed and guilty over someone else’s relatives? Generally speaking, one’s own are quite sufficient in this respect, thank you.
Many in the audience will move smoothly from laughs to tears by the play’s end. “The Waverly Gallery” is a scrupulously unmanipulative, unsentimental treatment of subject matter that is, well, inherently manipulative and sentimental. In this respect it resembles last season’s Pulitzer Prize winner “Wit,” which had the considerable advantage of a heroine whose searching self-awareness gave the play a vital emotional and intellectual force. Self-awareness counts for a lot in the theater — where would Shakespeare’s characters be without it? Gladys, of course, is beyond self-awareness, and so despite Heckart’s terrific performance, she’s a much less compelling figure — a woman who engages our pity but not any deeper emotional allegiance.
None is evoked by the play’s other characters either, and Lonergan’s last-minute attempt to reach for a larger significance in a closing monologue by Daniel is somewhat strained. The truth is Lonergan’s subject is universally familiar — and therefore inevitably affecting — but it’s not translated here into powerful or meaningful theater, just a comic and heart-tugging little docudrama.