Kenneth Lonergan, along with his Manchester by the Sea discovery Lucas Hedges and Lobby Hero star Michael Cera, team with the astonishing Elaine May and Joan Allen for The Waverly Gallery, a vital comic drama that dares us to laugh before delivering the gut punch we know is coming.

Opening tonight at the Golden Theatre, sensitively directed by Lila Neugebauer, Waverly Gallery – a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2001 only now making its long-in-coming Broadway debut – is an unsparing visit with a family in extremis. Performed by that first-rate cast – add David Cromer to the list – Lonergan’s play, at once loving and unsentimental, gives attention to that long, inevitable passage in a family’s life when the old slip away.

If the devastating Manchester By The Sea detailed the ultimate topsy turvy tragedy – the loss of a child – The Waverly Gallery makes clear that going out on time and by what we like to think is nature’s plan has a ruthlessness all its own.

Hedges’ Daniel is our guide, a young speechwriter who introduces us to his family as he looks back, from the vantage of a couple years, on the heartbreaking final months and years of his grandmother’s life, a life robbed by dementia well before the last breath.

But what a life it must have been, even if Daniel – and we – will only know it in glimpses and suggestions. A widow in her late 80s – she’s roughly the same age as the 20th Century when the play begins in 1989 – Gladys Green (May) runs her own small, second-rate Greenwich Village art gallery, more avocation and time-filler since her retirement from a law career. In better days Gladys and her husband hosted lively Fire Island parties and argued lefty politics with the bright minds who stopped by their Village apartment. She preached against segregation from a soapbox, probably in Washington Square Park, and maybe was one step ahead of the Nazis back in Germany.

She also raised her daughter (Allen), a successful doctor who now has the old woman over for dinner every Wednesday and who dreads the inevitability of once again sharing a roof.

Michael Cera, Elaine May, Joan Allen
Brigitte Lacombe

Like Tom in The Glass Menagerie, Daniel occasionally addresses us directly, recalling moments and setting scenes from a family life that is smashed to pieces (that’s how one of them sadly describes Gladys’ mind). Family dinners – a foursome that includes Ellen’s husband Howard (Cromer), his longstanding fondness for Gladys matched only by his tactlessness – devolve into sub-conversations, cross-talk and annoyance as the near-deaf Gladys either fakes her way through or wants to know what was just said, over and over. Mostly, she just doesn’t want to be invisible.

Waverly even has its own Gentleman Caller, here a not very talented painter named Don (Cera) who drops by the gallery and leaves with a show (or doesn’t leave – the generous, big-hearted Gladys sets the hapless Don up with a cot in the back room). Don’s spectacularly unsuccessful opening night – as sad as Laura’s broken menagerie – will be the Waverly Gallery’s last.

Throughout the play, we see vignettes – family dinners, encounters in the gallery, discussions about what to do with Gladys, and, in the most wrenching segment, a series of brief and escalating late-night conversations between Gladys and Daniel (he lives down the hall) as the forgetful Gladys repeatedly wanders from her apartment to his, knocking on his door at all hours, Daniel losing patience in ways so many of us will recognize. 

Played out on David Zinn’s well-rendered sets (Ellen’s tasteful Upper West Side apartment, Gladys’ richly bohemian Village home, the welcoming gallery itself) and costumed by Ann Roth, The Waverly Gallery has a visual naturalism that balances nicely with Daniel’s mournful, guilt-ridden reveries.

Like actors in a Robert Altman film, the Waverly characters talk over one another, stumble their lines of dialogue, with Neugebauer carefully charting the way, her instincts for each actor’s talents paying off tremendously. She taps into to the nervous, neurotic energies of Hedges, Cera and Allen, and finds a grounding compassion in Cromer.

And as good as they all are, this production will be remembered for the stunning Elaine May. She’s so good here that there are moments you’ll swear she isn’t acting. Did she really forget that line? It feels a privilege to watch this legend transform Lonergan’s meditation on dignity, regret and ungraspable memory into something indelible and lasting.