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BY ELIZABETH ZIMMER | It’s been 57 years since Elaine May and her comedy partner, Mike Nichols, catapulted to stardom from the stage of Broadway’s John Golden Theatre. Since then, she’s become a showbiz legend: writing, directing, and starring in movies like “A New Leaf,” “The Heartbreak Kid,” “Ishtar,” and “The Birdcage,” while punching up the writing for dozens of others.
Now, surrounded by powerhouse performers, May has returned to the Golden stage, in “The Waverly Gallery,” a 1999 play by Kenneth Lonergan. Young director Lila Neugebauer, who guides this revival, assembled an A-list cast that should buoy the production through its three-month run. The night I went, the audience jumped to its feet as the lights came down, celebrating May and her colleagues.
Set in the late 1980s, the play tracks the decline of Gladys Green, the feisty, elegant woman played by May, as she succumbs to the ravages of Alzheimer’s. Once a lawyer, now the owner of a sleepy Greenwich Village art gallery, she lives alone in a nearby apartment, with her grandson Dan in the flat next door (Lucas Hedges, who carries the bulk of the narrative load). Uptown, her daughter Ellen (Joan Allen), a shrink, shares a mid-century modern apartment with her second husband, Howard, played with affable humor by the remarkable actor/director David Cromer. They all talk at once, loudly, because Gladys is also losing her hearing. In the hubbub, Gladys tries to attend to the family dog, and seems to exist in a universe of emotion while all the others live mainly in their heads.
Don, a clueless young painter from Massachusetts (Michael Cera), wanders into the gallery carrying a bunch of pictures, and Gladys, who’s beginning to lose it, offers to represent him and to let him sleep in the back; he soon becomes part of the family. His paintings are actually terrific (they look like the work of Philip Pearlstein), but they rarely sell.
May is luminous as Gladys, keeping up conversations even as she loses the thread and repeats herself. She treasures her independence, and resents the aides hired to administer her medications. Ellen and Howard are exhausted, caught between the demands of their psychiatric practices and their fears for Gladys’ future. Dan finds her banging on his door at all hours, and he’s losing sleep. None of the options for her future care appeal to any of them.
This all sounds grim, and it is — yet the gifted artists keep our spirits up. David Zinn’s several sets provide functional ’80s interiors, and Tal Yarden bridges scene shifts with video of the city’s street life. At 86 (and playing older!), Elaine May is still a beauty, shapely in Ann Roth’s costumes, constantly losing her keys. We know that her fate may be in all our futures, which keeps us glued to the action. Lonergan’s writing never flags, and the narrative device of the youngest family member addressing us directly includes us in the conversation. Whether you’ve revered May for decades or have never heard of her, you owe yourself a visit with this American matriarch and her clan.
Through Jan. 27, Tues. through Sun. At the John Golden Theatre (252 W. 45th St., btw. Seventh & Eighth Aves.). Visit thewaverlygalleryonbroadway.com for tickets ($48-$149), or call 212-239-6200.