Kenneth Lonergan‘s 1999 drama, The Waverly Gallery, has taken quite a few hits from critics over the course of its many productions around the country, mainly for trying to cash in on fear of aging and the mental deterioration that so often goes along with it. When it played in New York, after premiering at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts, Michael Feingold of The Village Voice described it as an ”obstinate and unsatisfying play about a young man’s travails with his grandmother‘s advancing senility.“ Reporting on its current incarnation at the Pasadena Playhouse, the Los Angeles Times’ Don Shirley complained only last week about the play‘s predictability as Lonergan dramatizes a central character with Alzheimer’s disease. And indeed, most of us know how that‘s going to turn out.

Still, Waverly’s action is no more predictable than, say, Ionesco‘s Rhinoceros, a play just as sketchy as Lonergan’s, though admittedly buttressed by girders more symbolic. In Ionesco‘s drama, an entire French town, presumably occupied by German Nazis, morphs into pachyderms, villager by villager. Resistance to the beasts is every bit as hopeless as resistance to the onset of dementia, which is precisely Ionesco’s point. Both plays are deeply cynical studies in delusions — of grandeur, of triumph, or even of just controlling one‘s own destiny — despite Lonergan’s Hallmark epitaph about the beauty of life, pasted into Waverly‘s closing line. In fact, the entire drama in both Waverly and Rhinoceros consists of the outside world closing in on and suffocating its inhabitants. Whether that stranglehold is political, metaphysical or merely physical, that’s enough drama for me — be it familiar, predictable, or not. The Waverly Gallery is profound in unorthodox ways, and its virtues have often been underplayed or overlooked by those who recognize — rightly so — that the play is unlikely to change the course of contemporary drama.

We meet the silver-haired Gladys (Eve Roberts) as she sits at a narrow table in a decrepit Greenwich Village art gallery that she ostensibly runs; she‘s munching on a sandwich and conversing with her sweet-natured grandson, Daniel (Michael Weston), who’s parked next to her and will double as the play‘s narrator. ”Conversation“ is probably the wrong word to describe what’s actually happening. Gladys speaks a great deal, while Daniel, when he can, interjects by shouting, since Gladys has almost as much trouble hearing as she does listening.

Gladys is at a point in her life when she no longer imparts information; rather, she recapitulates it from a well of memories that seems to reach down 100 miles. She‘s also at the stage when the recollections coming from that well’s deeper recesses — her childhood and the early years of her marriage — spring to the surface with unparalleled clarity, while those of last year, or even yesterday afternoon, emerge increasingly frayed around the edges, if they emerge at all.

Meanwhile, Gladys apparently wants to listen, though she doesn‘t quite know how. She asks repeatedly about Daniel’s job at ”the newspaper,“ and she nods with great interest when he explains that he‘s actually a speechwriter for the Environmental Protection Agency. By Act 2, a year or so later, he’s still a speechwriter for the EPA, and she still tells people that he writes for The New York Times. By now, the only person in her family whom Gladys recognizes is her daughter. When she speaks to her grandson, she mistakes him for her late husband, driving Daniel to the edge of sleep-deprived madness with her nocturnal visits, with her frazzled, rambling monologues, or dialogues with ghosts from her past. What‘s to be done with Grandma?

All of Samuel Beckett’s plays, and many of his poems and novels, are about such grim preludes to dying, though he approaches the theme with more sardonic, symbolic humor than in Lonergan‘s sitcom realism. America’s answer to Beckett, since Hume Cronyn and the late Jessica Tandy opened The Gin Game in 1977, has been sweet, feisty folks in decline, tailor-made for regional theaters and PBS specials, offering a fleeting glance at — rather than a plunge into — oblivion. (This is as far removed from Beckett as Norman Rockwell is from George Grosz‘s expressionist sketches.) The Waverly Gallery could easily, though unfairly, be stacked on the same shelf as The Gin Game. Unfairly, because Lonergan does struggle to meet Beckett halfway. Gladys cuts loose with extended speeches, exposing her brain’s decaying synapses — the repetitions, the contradictions, the maddening weight of disconnected verbiage — with harrowing veracity. It would have been more expedient, for commercial purposes, to trim or gild these aspects, to keep them at the same remove we usually keep our old people in this culture. In tone, at least, that‘s what The Gin Game does. Yet through the familiar, Lonergan’s long stares at Gladys turn uncomfortably candid and true — even merciless, especially for a play dedicated to his own grandmother.

”Where did I leave my keys?“ asks the exasperated Gladys. With ever-waning patience, her daughter reminds her that they‘re tied to her arm. ”Who, in their 20s or 40s or 60s, has not misplaced their keys?“ you may say to yourself. ”Yet not all people who misplace their keys have dementia,“ you answer, struggling for some comfort, for distance. Still, you can’t help but notice how Gladys‘ fumbling for words that are slipping out of her vocabulary leads to a loss of public credibility. This is more than discomfiting; it’s terrifying — not least because it‘s so familiar. It takes such a tiny slip to send one tumbling off the precipice of respectability.

There are two other characters in Waverly, a struggling young painter named Don (Mark Rosenthal), who camps in the gallery’s backroom, and the hotel owner, Alan (David Groh), who tries to evict Gladys from her gallery in order to transform it into a breakfast room for the hotel. Don is pretty much a cartoon, who achieves his life‘s dream, for a moment anyway, when his collected works are presented for sale in Gladys’ gallery, starting at $2,000 each. Not a single customer walks in. But for Don, whose universe is no less cloistered than Gladys‘, just having the New York exhibit is a triumph.

Meanwhile, Daniel pleads with Alan to allow his grandmother to stay one more year in the gallery, as it’s her only link to the outside world. Alan replies that customers have already put down deposits for breakfast and there‘s no way to return those deposits, no way to reach them, no, it can’t be done. As it turns out, the breakfast room never materializes, and it takes three years for Alan to convert the gallery into a restaurant. All of which — Alan‘s saga and Don’s — are satellite sketches about the nature of delusion in the brick-and-mortar worlds of both business and art, and its similarity to delusion in Alzheimer‘s. It’s a nice try, but feels like a reach, probably because Don and Alan are made of paper, while Gladys is constructed from flesh and from Lonergan‘s unyielding glare. None of which would have credence without Bruce Kirby’s carefully calibrated staging and the uniformly excellent performances.

THE WAVERLY GALLERY | By KENNETH LONERGAN | At the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena Through August 11

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