Elaine May is one of our greatest resources for comedy in America, yet she has no Kennedy Center Honor.
Now you must run to see her in “The Waverly Gallery” on Broadway before the comedy closes in January. I asked Elaine, and she’s not going to stay past then. Anyway, she’s 80something. She’s doing 8 shows a week. Give her a break.
Once the partner of Mike Nichols in classic comedy sketches (on YouTube, please, you’ll binge watch them), Elaine made a career for herself as a screenwriter and director. Her most beloved (for me) was “The Heartbreak Kid,” which she directed from a Neil Simon screenplay in 1972. Her daughter, Jeannie Berlin, is one of the stars. (You’ve never seen this movie? I can’t talk to you!)
Among Elaine’s other shining credits: Writing Warren Beatty’s “Heaven Can Wait,” and Mike Nichols’ “Birdcage,” and her work on “Tootsie,” three of the most brilliant comedies in movie history. True, she had indigestion with “Ishar,” But then there’s her acting in Woody Allen’s “Small Time Crooks” and directing “Mikey and Nicky,” and basically, she’s one of the world’s great wonders.
So there she is on stage for most of Kenneth Lonergan’s autobiographical play with the hottest kid in town, Lucas Hedges (two hit movies coming, “Ben is Back” and “Boy Erased”), and the sensational Joan Allen, and director who acts sometimes David Cromer, and Lonergan’s new regular, Michael Cera. And the play revolves around Elaine, playing aging art dealer Gladys Green, with her gallery off Washington Square Park for 28 years that has fallen out of fashion.
The problem is Gladys is a) deaf and b) has onset dementia, that is dementing quickly. Lucky for Gladys, she’s charming and funny and sweet. But she is also repetitive and becoming not annoying but quickly a problem that can’t be solved. What to do with her? She and her grandson (Hedges) live down the hall from each other. and she’s ringing his bell in the middle of the night. And he’s so patient with her, to the point of absurdity.
We have all been there. I went through it with three grandparents and a great aunt. You just have to live it. And so the audience does, laughing wryly and uproariously. Elaine May brings a softer side than the legendary actress who originated the role 20 years ago, Eileen Heckart. And in tuning into Gladys with all her superpowers of perception and sensitivity, Elaine has the audience in the palm of her hand. She spends a good deal of time talking to an offstage dog, for example, and you really start to think the dog is there. You really worry it’s being overfed.
Lucas Hedges, ok, he is the real thing, he’s turning into an actor’s actor at almost 22. God bless him. He’s channeling an older generation. Joan Allen– she has a Tony Award and three Oscar nominations– just shows she is much missed (where’s she been) and had better get back to work now fast when this closes. David Cromer — a great theater director– brings a decency and grounding to the role of Gladys’s son in law. Michael Cera is a little restrained here, but he’s developed into a fine theater actor on top of his movie success.
The Waverly Gallery did exist. I used to look at it as I ran to school and wondered, What the heck is going on in there? Now I now: a lot of wonderful things.
Please, Tony nominators, don’t forget Elaine May next spring when this production is gone.