November 24, 2018

Do "The Ferryman" and the "The Waverly Gallery" Live Up to The Hype About Them?

Most theatergoers, especially those with limited time and resources, try to figure out which shows to see through a combination of word of mouth, social media and official reviews, particularly the ones in The New York Times. And when the reviews are raves, that can mean they walk into a show with very high expectations—and the risk of being very disappointed. 

So far this season, clamorous buzz and unbridled praise has circled around The Ferryman, Jez Butterworth’s family saga set against the backdrop of the Irish hunger strikes in the 1980s; and The Waverly Gallery, Kenneth Lonergan’s memory play about caring for an aging relative who is descending into dementia. Each has been proclaimed a production not to be missed. So should you believe the hype?

Like legions of theatergoers on both sides of the ocean, I was gobsmacked by Butterworth’s previous play Jerusalem (click here to read my review), an ode to the eroding myths of British identity that made a star out of Mark Rylance almost a decade ago. And so Ferryman, with its mythological allusions to the god who carries souls to the underworld, was at the top of my want-to-see-list this fall. Amazingly, it surpassed my expectations. 

With the exception of a brief prologue, the play is set in the farmhouse of Quinn Carney, a former member of the Irish Republican Army who has given up politics and now devotes his time to heading a multigenerational family and farming their land in the rural Northern Ireland county of Armagh.  

Living in the house are Quinn’s sickly wife and their six children, his whiskey-loving uncle, two maiden aunts and his sister-in-law Caitlin and her teen son Oisin, widowed and orphaned when Quinn's brother Seamus mysteriously disappeared a decade earlier. The family has long suspected that Seamus was assassinated by the IRA but while still mourning his absence, Quinn and Caitlin have fallen in love with one another.

As the play opens, Seamus’ body has been discovered in a bog with a bullet hole in its head. IRA leaders want to protect the sympathy for their cause that's recently been engendered by the starvation deaths of incarcerated members waging a hunger strike for the right to be treated as political prisoners. So the IRA will do whatever it takes to get the Carney family to release a statement absolving the group of Seamus’ murder.

That’s a lot of plot and a lot of characters—21 actors take a bow at the curtain call—but Butterworth, who based the play on the real-life disappearance of the uncle of his life partner Laura Donnelly (she also reprises her Olivier Award-winning portrayal of Caitlin) weaves it altogether in thrillingly satisfying fashion.

In fact the play serves as a master class in theatrical storytelling. Butterworth is superb with language, be it the colloquial braggadocio of a group of teen boys trying to act older and wiser than they are or the poetic musings of the elderly aunt who lives in the past but can foretell the future.

He’s equally adept with plotting. Not a word in this nearly three-and-a-half-hour play is wasted. A seemingly random conversation about a radio program tells us everything we need to know about the characters having it. A funny scene with a live rabbit in Act I foreshadows devastating consequences in Act III.  

His brilliant script is brought to life by an equally brilliant cast lead by Donnelly and Paddy Considine who originated the roles of Caitlin and Quinn at London’s Royal Court Theatre, but everyone, down to a real-life baby (click here to read about the infants who share the role) is pitch perfect.

And the vibrant direction of Sam Mendes (click here to read a profile of him) fills the stage with movement, music and an underlying menace, subtly echoed in Nick Powell’s soundscape, Peter Mumford’s lighting and the slightly askew farmhouse that set designer Rob Howell has created.

The play is long, the authentic-sounding accents can at times be difficult to understand and a few naysayers have accused the play of indulging in stereotypes (click here to read one such objection) but I can’t remember the last time I walked out of a theater so exhilarated by what I'd just seen that I wanted to turn around and go right back in to see the whole thing all over again.

Alas, I didn’t feel that way when I left the Golden Theatre after seeing The Waverly Gallery. This is the third of the plays Lonergan wrote in the ‘90s to get a star-studded Broadway production over the last four years. I was so taken with last spring’s revival of Lobby Hero (click here for my review of that), that I was really looking forward to this one, especially because some critics have called it Lonergan’s masterwork.  

Lonergan has called the play his most personal because it’s based on the experiences he had with his grandmother who operated an art gallery in Greenwich Village in the 1970s until she began to suffer from dementia, forcing him and his mother to make tough decisions about the best way to care for her and to deal with the gallery that had become the main focus of her life.

Waverly Gallery ran for just 70 performances in 2000 but Eileen Heckart picked up the Lucille Lortel, Drama Desk, Obie and Outer Critics Circle awards for her portrayal of the declining Gladys Green. This time out, Elaine May, returning to the Broadway stage for the first time in 57 years, is destined to make a similar sweep. 

May, herself a comparatively youthful 86, turns in a performance that is heartbreaking in both its emotional and physical truthfulness as her Gladys becomes frailer, and more fearful about what is happening to her, in each scene.

There is also strong work from Joan Allen as her daughter and Lucas Hedges as her grandson (click here to read an interview with him).  And yet the play failed to move me. Maybe it’s because there have been so many books, movies and plays (including the devastating The Father) about the ravages of dementia since Lonergan wrote The Waverly Gallery that the material seemed overly familiar. 

Or maybe it’s because of the distracting directorial and design choices that Lila Neugebauer, a usually deft director, has made in her Broadway debut. Long pauses between each scene to allow stagehands to change the sets broke the momentum of the storytelling and sucked the energy out of the whole enterprise.

Meanwhile, the video projections of scenes from the Village in earlier years that Neugebauer and projection designer Tal Yarden chose to show during those intervals quickly grew monotonous and had very little to do with the plot.

But I’m in the minority on this one.  The Waverly Gallery has drawn raves. People who usually dismiss plays that deal with social issues, have touted this one. Perhaps that’s because the issue of aging directly affects most critics (older folks) and Broadway theatergoers (also older folks).

I’m no spring chicken myself. I’ve seen elderly loved ones lose both their physical and mental abilities.  And my own mortality is peeping around the corner. But I like to think none of that would matter and I’d still be moved if there were truly a great play. After all, I’m not Irish and I was knocked out by The Ferryman.

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