Kenneth Lonergan, Master Of Revival: The ‘Waverly Gallery’ Playwright On His Gift For Sadness & How To Survive It – Tony Watch Q&A

Kenneth Lonergan
Kenneth Lonergan Evan Agostini/Shutterstock

In just five years, playwright, screenwriter and Oscar-nominated director (for Manchester by the Sea) Kenneth Lonergan has seen three of his earlier works – all originally staged Off Broadway – revived for Broadway, with 1996’s This Is Our Youth (the play that introduced Mark Ruffalo to New York audiences) kicking things off with a 2014 revival starring Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin. Last year’s acclaimed staging of 2001’s Lobby Hero earned three Tony nominations (Revival/play, and Featured Actor nods for Cera and Bryan Tyree Henry), and now Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2001 following its staging Off Broadway, is Tony-nominated (Best Revival/play) for the remarkable 2018 Broadway staging starring Elaine May (also Tony nominated), Lucas Hedges, Joan Allen, Cera and David Cromer. Both the play and May recently won Drama Desk awards.

And the trend has spread to London, where Lonergan’s 2009 Off Broadway play The Starry Messenger recently opened in a West End production starring the playwright’s lifelong friend and frequent collaborator Matthew Broderick. (Asked whether the production will find its way to New York, Lonergan said, “I certainly hope so. I love that play and I love this production so if we can get it here I’ll be very happy.”)

Deadline recently spoke to Lonergan about this unusual streak of revisited fare, about May’s stunning performance as a woman with Alzheimer’s disease slipping away as her daughter (Allen) and grandson (Hedges) do their frustrated, helpless best to cope, and about Lonergan’s “gift for sadness” that’s equaled by an eye and ear for the humor that makes even life’s harshest blows survivable.

The Waverly Gallery, directed by Lila Neugebauer, began previews at the John Golden Theatre on September 25, 2018, opened October 25, and ended its limited run January 27, 2019. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Lucas Hedges, Elaine May, ‘The Waverly Gallery’ Brigitte Lacombe

Deadline: Both The Waverly Gallery and its star Elaine May have received so many accolades this awards season. Can you describe the sense of satisfaction – the mix in your head right now – for yourself and for Elaine?

Kenneth Lonergan: It’s an interesting mix because it’s on a two-tiered level. I think I’m obviously very happy for the play. The play very much stems from my family experience and so it’s really gratifying that audiences relate my family’s experience to their own experience. I think it’s an experience that everyone has that somehow gets buried away in daily life. So it is extremely gratifying to have been, in any way, a part of people feeling like some of what they’re going through or have gone through is reflected back to them from the stage.

On a parallel note, Elaine May, is one of the great creative figures of our time. I think under-appreciated even though she’s been very much appreciated. So to have had any part in bringing her genius back into a more public light, I’m beyond delighted that any of that has been associated with anything I’ve done.

Deadline: I’ve been an Elaine May fan for many years, but her performance in Waverly seemed on an entirely different level than anything I expected. I’m sure you’ve heard this, but apparently some audience members weren’t even sure if she was acting, like, Did she actually forget whatever it was in the moment that the character was forgetting? Did you know from the start that she had this role in her?

Lonergan: It was such an extraordinary performance, it would be patting myself on the back too much to say, yes, I did. But the fact is I knew how brilliant she was, I knew how good she would be for this role. To have all my expectations exceeded to that extent is something I’ve never quite experienced before, and I’ve had my expectations exceeded a lot in my career…That illusion that she created where it was so convincing that people were concerned she didn’t know what she was saying is an effect of her consummate craftsmanship and talent. You can’t convince people night after night that you might not know what you’re saying when you’re playing a character that doesn’t know what she’s saying. You’re just a brilliant actor.

Deadline: I didn’t  see the earlier productions of the play. Did the role change at all over the years?

Lonergan: You mean in the script? No. It’s the same play that was performed originally at the Promenade [Off Broadway, 2000] with Eileen Heckart. I might have changed three or four sentences or cut one or two but honestly no more than that. As soon as Elaine embodied it, it became a very different character. She really brought sort of a frailty and a sensitivity to it. Eileen just seemed like a tougher cookie than Elaine. Neither one of them is a marshmallow, a blushing, fading flower or whatever trope you want to use. Elaine just had this incredible sensitivity and frailty that made your heart leap out towards her.

With Elaine, it was like watching someone who’s already on the edge of a precipice falling over it, whereas in Eileen’s case it was watching a very robust, powerful personality buckle under a weight nobody can bear. What they shared was this incredible warmth and lovingness towards the other members of the family. Watching Elaine, I was reminded how generous and loving my grandmother had always been all her life and I hadn’t quite noticed because I was a grandson and you expect your grandparents to be nice to you, unless they’re real curmudgeons. Watching the way Elaine treated everybody else in the play was doubly sad because you got the feeling of this incredibly warm woman who can’t be held back from the slide.

Deadline: Anyone who’s been through this situation with a family member recognizes the truth in the play’s details. I’m thinking specifically of the anger and frustration that comes from the family, how annoying it is when you have to repeat yourself, the lashing out in anger and the immediate feeling of guilt over doing so. Had you observed that in your own family, and did you carry a sense of guilt on your part?

Lonergan: I don’t think I could put it better than that. It’s all those things. I guess it’s a question of remembering, noticing what’s happening when it’s happening and then remembering it and trying to be honest about it. I think there’s an additional pain inflicted when people try to sugarcoat life’s painful experiences because as an audience you watch and you say, That’s not what happened. Are those people better than I am? Why are they telling that lie about this difficult situation? I know it’s not a malevolent intent. People are trying to put some kind of uplift in these very difficult stories, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I think you can get just as much [uplift] out of telling the truth and letting people see that what they’ve been through others have also been through, and what they’ve had a hard time coping with others have had a hard time coping with. It’s human to f*ck up and it’s human to lose your patience and it’s human to find yourself at the end of your rope even with someone you love. If these experiences were easy to get through they wouldn’t have the incredible impact they have.

It’s a notoriously difficult problem. The person’s confused, they don’t know what they’re doing, they don’t know what they’re saying. You can’t explain to them what’s going on. They’re still the same person in some form that they always were so all that complicated interplay is still alive. The play tries to capture that truthfully because I have no philosophy to say it’s all okay. What turns out to be okay is how much people really try to take care of each other under duress. That’s as undeniable as the degree of duress that they’re facing, and if you’re not truthful about one you can’t be truthful about the other.

We really tried to be accurate because we didn’t know what else to do. The fact that has some value I find to be very inspiring and very encouraging. I’ve never been more gratified than when someone comes up to me having seen that play and says, That was my family. 

Michael Cera, Elaine May, Joan Allen, ‘The Waverly Gallery’ Brigitte Lacombe

Deadline: We talked about Elaine, but Waverly wasn’t a one-woman show…

Lonergan: Elaine always insisted and correctly that it’s a family play. It’s an ensemble play even though she knew that her character was at the center of it. It always feels like you’re just passing around compliments but honestly there are a lot to be passed around here. I mean Joan Allen’s performance was just stunning and a very difficult part, a very crucial part. In a way, the grandson, played by Lucas [Hedges] beautifully, is telling us the story but the weight of the situation falls most heavily on Joan’s character, and I thought Joan’s mastery of that relationship was really incredible. I found her performance incredibly moving in the irritation and in the impatience and in the frustration in those moments when she cracks open. It just breaks your heart because you’re supposed to be allowed to be annoyed with your mother without it killing her. You’re not supposed to be taking care of your mom as if she was a patient.

Deadline: For people who haven’t seen the play and are reading this Q&A right now, they probably won’t get the fact that Waverly is a very funny play.

Lonergan: Thank you for saying that because I don’t find the play depressing. It’s a very serious topic but it’s not a dirge. Elaine was incredibly funny in the production. I won’t discuss how successfully funny or not I am, but Elaine is one of the most brilliant comedians ever to appear on the scene. The play has a lot of humor because the situation has a lot of humor, whether you call it black humor or grim humor, whatever the expression is. These things are as funny in life as they are horrible. If they weren’t they’d really be unbearable.

Manchester By The Sea
Michelle Williams, Casey Affleck, ‘Manchester by the Sea’ Amazon Studios

Deadline: That said, I can immediately think of three moments in your work that are incredibly sad – the goodbye scene in You Can Count on Me between Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, too many scenes to count in Manchester by the Sea, and certainly the climactic scene in Waverly. You do have a gift for sadness, wouldn’t you agree? Or at least for conveying it?

Lonergan: I don’t know if I have a gift for conveying it but I seem to have a gift for experiencing it. Life is very sad sometimes and I don’t know what to do with it. So I write about it.

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