Lucas Hedges and Elaine May star in "The Waverly Gallery"...

Lucas Hedges and Elaine May star in "The Waverly Gallery" by Kenneth Lonergan, directed by Lila Neugebauer. Credit: Brigitte Lacombe

WHAT "The Waverly Gallery"

WHERE Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., Manhattan

INFO Tickets from $48; 212-239-6200,

BOTTOM LINE Elaine May gives a raw, realistic performance in Kenneth Lonergan's heartbreaker.

Sometimes great theater hurts. Surely that is the case with "The Waverly Gallery," the engrossing and heartbreaking play by Kenneth Lonergan now getting its Broadway debut at the Golden Theatre.

A memory play on several levels (Lonergan was inspired by his grandmother's battle with Alzheimer’s), the work paints a devastating picture of a family grappling with the inevitable decline of an aging relative in the throes of dementia. Renowned comedian, actress, writer and director Elaine May returns to Broadway after nearly 60 years  (and to the same theater where she last appeared, with her comedy partner Mike Nichols). She gives a raw and painfully realistic performance as Gladys Green, once an outspoken liberal lawyer, now running a failing art gallery as her shattered mind slips away.

We see this mostly through her grandson Daniel (Lucas Hedges, an Oscar nominee for Lonergan's "Manchester by the Sea," in command and touching in his Broadway debut). Living in the apartment next door, Daniel is forced to deal almost daily with the awful manifestations of his grandmother's illness, while his mother and stepdad (finely nuanced performances from Joan Allen and David Cromer) maintain detached distance uptown. A marginally talented painter (a perfectly understated Michael Cera) offers Gladys one last chance to champion an artist, but he arrives on the scene a bit too late. 

With little plot beyond the owner of the gallery threatening to turn it into a restaurant, the play, directed by Lila Neugebauer in her own Broadway debut, is not without flaws. It drags early on, and fuzzy projections of the past add little to frequent scene changes. Wisely, she doesn't try to make too much of Lonergan's attempts at humor. Honestly, it’s hard to find anything funny in Gladys' mindless rambling and repetitive questions and especially in the growing frustrations and flashes of anger from the people who love her but are at a loss as to how to get everyone through the ordeal.

The drama here (the play was a Pulitzer finalist when first produced in 2000) gets its strength from the fine performances and from the horrific reality of a situation far too many of us know well. Like so many who've been there, this family is crippled by the lack of acceptable options for their loved one. Acting as narrator, as he's done throughout, Daniel suggests that loving each other so much means you have to keep trying, even if you know you won't prevail. "It makes you think," he concludes, "it must be worth a lot to be alive." Well said.

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