Picture of a Family in Crisis Hangs in 'The Waverly Gallery'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the dementia of the leading character in Kenneth Lonergan's play "The Waverly Gallery" got worse, an audience member near me commented quite audibly, "This looks familiar."

Gladys, the elderly woman in this play, will remind many theatergoers at the Pasadena Playhouse of someone they love. With more people living longer, her problems are increasingly prevalent.

Yet this very familiarity leads directly to the biggest potential pitfall for "The Waverly Gallery." As another audience member near me observed to a friend in another row--thankfully, during intermission instead of the play itself--"We know what's going to happen."

The subject lacks suspense. Aged characters who are losing their marbles usually don't find them.

Lonergan's first challenge was to depict this process and its effect on the old woman's family--something that the play accomplishes very well. His second challenge was to prevent the familiar from becoming the predictable. In this effort, "The Waverly Gallery" isn't nearly as successful.

As drama, this 1999 play pales in comparison to the two incisive Lonergan scripts that emerged since it opened: the screenplay for "You Can Count on Me" and the script for "Lobby Hero" (seen at South Coast Repertory earlier this year). In each of those, the ending of the story was hardly predetermined, and it was fascinating to watch the characters wrestling with the possibilities.

More of this quality could have appeared in "The Waverly Gallery," too, if the younger family members in the play were at odds with each other over what to do about Gladys.

Instead, Gladys' relatives agree that they should allow her to continue showing up most days at her nearly dormant Greenwich Village gallery, because this lets her feel as if she's engaged with the world. When she becomes worse, they all agree that she should be cared for at her daughter's uptown apartment, with in-home aides, not at a nursing facility.

Perhaps the play was too close to home for Lonergan to consider significant alterations in the story--the script is dedicated to his grandmother and his mother, and it's described as "intensely autobiographical" in the foreword to the published version. Certainly the authentic sound of Gladys' crumbling speech patterns and the repeated doses of overlapping dialogue--as family members grow impatient with Gladys' inability to hear as well as to think--bear testimony to Lonergan's intimacy with the subject.

But the absence of conflict among the family members makes some scenes feel stagnant, with especially flat endings. It's as if Lonergan restrained himself from shaping the scenes in a way that would violate their fidelity to his actual experiences. Lonergan may have been aware of this problem--witness the fact that Bruno Kirby's Pasadena staging includes a minor character who initially was dropped after the play's premiere in Williamstown, Mass.

Here, David Groh plays the landlord of Gladys' gallery, even though his character was missing not only from the New York production in 2000 but also from the published script. The sole purpose of this character appears to be to add a little more onstage conflict--it's his decision to take back the gallery space that forces Gladys' family to come to grips with her deterioration. But he never seems more than a plot device, and his scenes are not smoothly integrated into the play's texture.

The plum role, of course, is Gladys herself: a garrulous former lefty and social butterfly. She refuses to shut up as she finds her faculties diminishing, instead speaking all the more in a desperate attempt to remain grounded.

Eve Roberts plays her with a high-pitched voice, in contrast to the more gravelly sounds of the late Eileen Heckart, who created the role. Certainly a higher voice can just as easily wear down the patience of those around Gladys. It's easy to see how this Gladys' repetitious questions and increasing querulousness get on her family's nerves.

At the same time, Roberts retains a dignity in her stance that helps us see what a formidable woman Gladys once was. Of course, the fact that Lonergan discreetly refrains from showing us Gladys' last two years--when "all she did was moan," we are told--helps in the dignity department.

Michael Weston has a low-key likability as Gladys' grandson--the sometime narrator. His mother, Gladys' daughter Ellen, is well played by Natalija Nogulich as a woman on a tightrope between caring resolve and grim despair. The only odd note about this character is that she is referred to as shy--in the stage directions as well as the dialogue--without any evidence that it's true.

Ken Lerner and Mark Rosenthal round out the cast as two additional nice guys--Gladys' son-in-law and the hapless painter who mounts his work at her gallery. Unfortunately, the play needs more discord, not more nice guys.

*

"The Waverly Gallery," Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 and 9 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Aug. 11. $29.50-$39.50. (626) 356-PLAY. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Eve Roberts...Gladys Green

Natalija Nogulich...Ellen Fine

Michael Weston...Daniel Reed

Ken Lerner...Howard Fine

Mark Rosenthal...Don Bowman

David Groh...Alan George

By Kenneth Lonergan. Directed by Bruno Kirby. Sets by John Iacovelli. Costumes by Dana Rebecca Woods. Lighting by Paulie Jenkins. Sound by Stafford M. Floyd. Original music by Jason Robert Brown. Production stage manager Ed De Shae.

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