The "Dangerous, Unafraid" Brilliance of Elaine May on Stage (Guest Column)

Brigitte Lacombe
From left: Joan Allen, Elaine May, Lucas Hedges and David Cromer in Kenneth Lonergan's 'The Waverly Gallery'

The Tony Award nominee's 'Waverly Gallery' co-star, a Tony-winning director himself, reveals how "fucking awesome" it was to act opposite the legend — and not just because he also got to meet Bill Murray. Twice.

Elaine May and Scott Rudin live in the same apartment building. Elaine's apartment does not have a garbage disposal and Scott's apartment does have a garbage disposal. The story goes that while director Lila Neugebauer and Scott, the producer, were casting the Broadway revival of Kenneth Lonergan's The Waverly Gallery, Elaine ran into Scott near the elevators in their building and said, "If you can get a garbage disposal installed in my apartment I'll do the show."

Presumably the deal went through because Elaine May returned to act on Broadway for the first time since 1961 in a blisteringly raw, truthful, savage, hilarious and heartbreaking performance and I got to act with her. I'll try to tell you what it was like.

(Spoiler alert: It was fucking awesome.)

When we started rehearsals I had a lot of unfair expectations. I expected her to be funny (she is effortlessly witty and truthful at all times) and a raconteur (she will be happy to tell a casually brilliant story about the other geniuses and giants with whom she's worked, if you ask) and I knew she was a transformative performer (YouTube Elaine May and I'll see you in about four hours) and I figured she'd give some sort of capital P Performance.

But my expectations are no one else's problem, so I was also prepared for the possibility that she'd show up late, leave early, chew up rehearsal time like a Hastings refrigerator chews up fan belts, face front the whole time, and have her lines fed through an earpiece — but at least I'd get to meet Bill Murray.

None of that turned out to be true except I did get to meet Bill Murray. Twice. Because he came to see the show a second time and we all stood around backstage after a Saturday matinee and spoke in hushed tones about Elaine while she was off having dinner.

Elaine played Gladys Green, a character based on Kenneth Lonergan's grandmother, who takes the long walk from vibrancy to dementia. I flatter myself that I know a thing or two about actors rehearsing and it's not news that Elaine has one of the greatest, fastest minds in writing/acting/directing/producing/improvising (and whatever the hell else she does) but watching her learn and rehearse this role was a re-education in the relentless and rigorous exploration of why and how every moment connects to every other moment (she mentioned that she is sometimes referred to as the Logic Nazi), a re-education in absolute truthfulness, in utter faith in the principles of true ensemble work, and finally living in the risky, raw, terrified, furious world of Gladys' fading mind.

First, the role is nearly impossible to learn, endlessly looping through subtly varying repetitions of four or five of Gladys' preoccupations that devolve as the dementia worsens. Every one of these sets off a series of carefully escalating responses in other characters, Joan Allen (masterful) as her conflicted daughter, Lucas Hedges (all he's cracked up to be) as her grandson, Michael Cera (a brilliant craftsman) as a young artist showing in the Waverly Gallery, and me as her son-in-law (not bad). Gladys' disintegration and her family's responses are the spine of Kenny's beautiful play but it's built around a swirling mass of Gladys' words. Elaine built strong logic into the seeming illogic ("This is as close to hell as I ever want to get," she said one day, with her sly half smile, as she slogged through another harrowing maze of words). The structure she built within Kenny's in turn made our actions virtually inevitable.

I speculate that her innate sense of responsibility to the play and the ensemble come from her formative years at the University of Chicago and the formation of Playwrights Theatre Club, which begat Compass Players, which became Second City, which brought her and Mike Nichols to national prominence, which brought her to Broadway's Golden Theatre in 1960-61, which brought her (after a while) back to the Golden in The Waverly Gallery last fall.

There is nothing gooey or sentimental about Elaine's generosity as an artist. It seems merely to be the most efficient way to create the greatest possible truth. These are principles I was raised around in the Chicago theater community but to see one of the founders of these principles in action reanimated me in ways I'm still processing.

Next comes the crying. The stage directions in Waverly repeatedly instruct Gladys to burst into tears as her condition worsens and the fear and frustration overwhelm her. It is always a challenge when a script requires this at specific moments. There are actors who excel at this, there are actors who aren't predisposed to this. I would never claim to know Elaine well (she is preternaturally mysterious) but she seemed to fall into the second category and it was the only time I saw her struggle. Once, when she and Lila were discussing one of these moments, Elaine said — with a guardedness I hadn't seen yet: "I'm worried I'm not a good enough actress to do that." Lila immediately explained (beautifully) why the actual outcome of tears was unnecessary, but I believe I got to witness a light go on in Elaine's mind. I (again) speculate that saying it out loud served as a kind of personal challenge. Soon, as we moved through tech and into previews, I began to be ripped apart by Gladys' breakdowns. "I'm not a good enough actress to do that" seemingly would not stand.

What followed was rigorously structural work, which then exploded into raw, feral fear, and rage and panic and sorrow.

Is this common in Elaine's work? I don't know. There aren't many examples on film of this kind of performance from her, though obviously all her acting is full and alive and true, right down to the GE refrigerator commercial she and Mike Nichols did (YouTube "Elaine May refrigerator") but I don't know how often she played a role like Gladys. Had she ever? Most of her work in Strindberg and Chekhov was in the 1950s.

We performed The Waverly Gallery a little over 140 times. Here Elaine's artistry came to full flower, juggling the audience in rapt suspense — "When the show started I thought she was so frail she wasn't going to get through the first scene," audience members would say to us. "No," we would say proudly, "that's what she wants you to think" — with Gladys' disintegration while giving a completely fresh, complexity truthful performance that was different every night but true every night. Dangerous, unafraid of ugliness.

Elaine will grab you and shake you around onstage but she will never drop you.

I get asked a lot what it was like working with Elaine. What stories did she tell? Who did you get to meet? And I never have fun answers except obviously Bill Murray.

But it's been a few months and I'm ready to try. It was thrilling and inspiring and it made me pray that I could ever dance on a knife's edge when I'm 86 years old. Like Elaine.

Why? What the hell does Elaine May have to prove?

How badly did she want that garbage disposal?

David Cromer is a theater actor and director. He won the 2018 Tony Award for best direction of a musical for The Band's Visit.