When Elaine May agreed to be in my play, “The Waverly Gallery,” naturally I was ecstatic. I had admired her as a director, writer, actor and sketch comedian since high school, when my friend Patsy Broderick made me listen to the album “Nichols and May Examine Doctors.” I didn’t know then that I had already seen Elaine’s work in films like “The Heartbreak Kid,” “Heaven Can Wait,” “Reds” and others. Thanks to YouTube it’s now easy to watch some of her early sketch comedy with Mike Nichols. I wish more was available, and I wish the picture quality was better, but it’s not something you should go through life without having seen.
I’m not sure how well known it is that Elaine was the only woman film director working in the studio system in the 1970s. And as a woman director notoriously pilloried for not working that system with the crafty skill of, say, a Mike Nichols or a Francis Ford Coppola, it’s impossible to say what other creative avenues she would have opened up had she been afforded the second, third and fourth chances afforded to innovative and difficult male directors when they disrupt the arbitrary norms of the moviemaking machine. As somebody who has gotten in a little movie trouble myself, it’s easy to wonder how many second chances I would have gotten had I been a young woman genius in the 1970s, instead of a notoriously modest middle-aged man in the 2000s. Elaine, of course, made and took her own chances, then and ever since.
Several things strike you right away about Elaine, no matter what aspect of her work you are looking at. The first is her versatility — but many talented people are talented at many things. Elaine is one of the few polymaths I can think of who does everything she does not only with talent but with genius. I can think of a handful of others only, maybe.
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Having said all that, I must admit that until she appeared in “The Waverly Gallery,” I didn’t realize that Elaine is one of the greatest actors I have ever met, or seen. I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t entirely agree, not because she’s modest — she’s not, especially — but because her approach to acting is so profoundly rooted in the concrete; as a result she seems to imagine, or at least has often said, that if she were a really great actor she would not need her onstage behavior to be so firmly rooted in physical and practical reality in order for her performance to come alive. But watching her work with our director Lila Neugebauer through the moment-to-moment physical minutiae of each scene — to choose just one facet of her technique — was like nothing I have ever experienced. It was sometimes maddening, because after several hours of this you wanted to say, “Look, just sit in the chair and turn your head when he enters,” but she wouldn’t just sit in the chair and turn her head when he entered unless it really and truly made physical sense to her, in that play, in that scene, in that moment, in that chair, with that actor, entering through that door. She would let it go for the day, so as not to let the entire rehearsal founder against the shoals of her own concerns (please note important and considerate rehearsal ethic), but she always came back to it, day after day, until she was satisfied. In another actor this kind of thing would be sociopathically pretentious. In Elaine you realized you were watching, and partici-pating in, through her dogged, persistent, perfectly civil engagement, the sinking of a foundation which was to support a spontaneity, and a breadth of humor and emotion in her performance, which I have literally never seen anywhere else.
Once you see this in her it is impossible not to notice that it has been there all along. I love and admire Mike Nichols, but when you watch their sketch comedy, where he is a brilliant and gifted comedian it is Elaine who creates characters, acts with depth and sensitivity, and invests what is funny with what is absolutely true to life — as Mike went on to do as a great director, and as Elaine went on to do as a great director, writer and actor.
As someone who has spent his professional and creative life managing his own expectations in the admittedly greedy hope that they will somehow be exceeded, I can only add that no matter what you expect from Elaine May, you can’t be disappointed, because it turns out that she has much more to offer than anyone could have possibly expected even Elaine May to deliver.
Kenneth Lonergan is the writer of the Pulitzer-nominated “The Waverly Gallery.” He won an Oscar in 2017 for his screenplay for the film “Manchester by the Sea.” Elaine May has been nominated for two screenwriting Oscars, for “Heaven Can Wait” (1979) and “Primary Colors” (1999).