Review: Elaine May Might Break Your Heart in ‘Waverly Gallery’

Review: Elaine May Might Break Your Heart in ‘Waverly Gallery’

Daniel’s crystalline monologues of recollection aside, “The Waverly Gallery” often has the ostensible waywardness of recorded conversations. But no word is randomly chosen here, starting with Gladys’s opening line: “I never knew anything was the matter.”

She’s talking about the end of Helen’s first marriage, to Daniel’s father, but it comes to suggest a more willful oblivion. And when she whimsically describes the loneliness of Ellen’s dog, who just wants a little attention, you know exactly what Gladys really means.

Always stylishly dressed (Ann Roth did the costumes), Ms. May’s Gladys retains her coercive hostess’s charm. She ends most of her sentences with a practiced winning smile that now seems to be searching anxiously for affirmation.

All the cast members function beautifully as quotidian detectives, looking for the patterns in the pieces. In a shattering moment, a teary Daniel hugs his mother tight, and you know that he’s wondering if his relationship with Ellen might one day mirror that of Ellen’s with Gladys.

As near perfect as the performances are, the physical production occasionally lets them down. David Zinn’s urban set, with its vistas of the city beyond, weighs heavily on the playing area. And the intervals between scenes — which feature vintage street photography projections (by Tal Yarden) — feel ponderously long.

Such objections dissolve as soon as Gladys and her clan reassemble into groupings that convey both claustrophobic intimacy and tragic, unbridgeable distance.

Mr. Cera’s homey painter may be no Picasso. But in describing his domestic portraits and local landscapes, he sums up the essence of the play. “I tried to get the details right,” he says, “because that’s what you remember when you think about something, so I tried like hell to get them the way they are.”

So did Mr. Lonergan. That’s what makes “The Waverly Gallery” a work of such hard, compassionate clarity.

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