The play is about as far from This Is Our Youth as it could get. Whereas Youth concerned troubled teens, The Waverly Gallery focuses on three generations of a family, mainly the oldest, an octogenarian woman. The biggest issues in Youth were where to get good pot and how to get laid; here, there's more serious stuff at stake--Alzheimer's Disease, for one. In fact, the only things these two plays seem to have in common is the playwright's terrific ear for dialogue and wonderfully naturalistic characters.
The most impressive achievement of Youth was its dead-on recreation of teen lingo: All the "What's up"'s, shoulder-shrugs, an awkward silences between an overeager guy and a wise-beyond-her-years girl. How a thirtysomething playwright could get that all down pat was truly amazing. Now, Lonergan shows the same agility with geriatric speak: Repeating the same questions over and over again ("Do you think the Village has changed much?" "Oh, look at the dog!"); the old-school racism ("There are a lot of people now from South Korea"); the awkward silences between an overeager grandmother and a wise-beyond-his-years boy.
The grandmother, Gladys (Eileen Heckart), runs The Waverly Gallery. She is also the grandmother of Don, the narrator (Josh Hamilton)--and clearly a stand-in for the playwright. But Gladys is not just Lonergan's grandmother--she's yours, she's mine, she's everyone's. Watch her fiddling with her hearing aid or sitting idly at the dinner table while everyone whispers about her or shouts to her. Watch the broad grin she gets when talking with her grandson--and remember, just because Gladys can't remember that Don works for the Environmental Protection Agency--and not The New York Times--doesn't mean she's not proud of him). This stuff is universal.
And Heckart couldn't be better. She originated the role this summer at Williamstown Theatre Festival (though Joanne Woodward replaced her for part of the run). In recent interviews, the Oscar/Emmy/Golden Globe winner has said that this is the last play she'll do--and that's a great shame. She is well-supported by the actors playing her family members, including Maureen Anderman, Mark Blum, and Hamilton, who's always an asset to any production. He's such an appealing, chameleonic actor, whether he's playing an egotistic drug dealer in Lonergan's Youth or an idealistic orphan in The Cider House Rules.
But the real star of The Waverly Gallery is the playwright himself. Ironically, unlike Youth--which many thought was autobiographical--this play is actually based on Lonergan's memory of his own grandmother and how she faded away over the years. It's relatively unedited: For all the humor (and there is quite a bit), there's a lot of pain and strife as well, leaving the play often uneasy to watch. Surely it couldn't have been an easy one to write. Indeed, this is Lonergan's Side Man--a beautiful memory play, a fitting ode to a memorable woman. Let's just hope that Lonergan's fast-rising film career doesn't tear him away permanently from the stage, since this is one playwright we need to hear a lot more from.