1950s comedienne takes on a dramatic role

Elaine May Shimmers In The Waverly Gallery

What? Elaine May on Broadway? You bet — in the Broadway debut of Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery, which premiered Off Broadway in 2000.

As we know, May, the ’50s comedienne, made her mark defying stereotypes of women’s roles, portraying herself through characters that were sophisticated, professional women, such as doctors and psychiatrists. Here, she portrays Gladys Green, an independent business person, the owner of the titular art gallery, and a woman whose brightest years are behind her.

May’s shimmering presence, her graceful, elegant appearance, and Yiddish mannerisms are precious to watch. Her tragic flaw, that she’s become hard of hearing and can’t communicate very well, heralds her downfall. Humorously, her constant iterations of the agitating “What?” stir the battle over the hearing aid, with others turning it up so that she can turn it down.

While there are glimpses of Gladys as a quirky, even buoyant gallery owner, Lonergan’s drama is about her descent into dementia. It’s not fun to watch the demise of such a focused and well-honed character — one that she built over decades, and which falls down, simply from years of wear.

As her dutiful daughter Ellen Fine, Joan Allen tries to resonate sweetly enough with family life, at least as it prevails in their privileged Upper West Side digs. She finds herself sandwiched between love and resentment.

Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) makes his Broadway debut as the gentle, albeit unaspiring, son. Not only does he narrate the play’s action sensitively, explicating the progression of Gladys’s failing mental life, he’s also the most compassionate family member.

On the other hand, David Cromer, as Ellen’s husband, portrays a staid psychiatrist, whose interactions with others epitomize what it’s like to fall short of remarkable. He’s there, but like everyone else, he can’t do anything.

At the center of it all, Michael Cera channels the role of the artist, who despite his New England clumsiness, paints the kind of realistic scenes that Lonergan so famously champions in his plays. Everyday life is everyday life. And Lonergan’s gift for capturing us in the quotidian, albeit hurtful, world is the strength of this drama.

Cera, who made his Broadway debut in Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth, topping it with his portrayal of the security guard in last season’s Broadway premiere of Lobby Hero, is the playwright’s foremost interpreter, playing characters who do not necessarily possess extraordinary qualities. To the contrary, his high voice and happy slacker attitude speaks to the fabric of the everyman.

New York City, where Lonergan’s plays are set, (David Zinn, designer) is a great front for the ordinary, because there is so much obviously hiding behind it. And Cera’s Don Bowman delights in seeing himself as the struggling Village artist: living in his car, visiting the Waverly where his works are on display, chugging a couple of beers with the guys, and imagining that this is success.

That director Lila Neugebauer keeps us engaged in a story about life’s decline is a remarkable achievement. She plumbs the depth of Lonergan’s seemingly simple story, in which language fails to bind us.

The Prom

Arriving at a weekend matinee of The Prom, I eagerly anticipated seeing one of my favorite musical comedy stars, Beth Leavel, in the lead role. The buzz I’d heard was really positive, so I was prepared to sit back, kick up my feet, and have a great time. Only on this occasion, Leavel’s understudy was playing the lead.

Seemingly as prepared as if she had been playing the role all along, Kate Marilley gave an amazing performance, shattering our expectations, regardless of what they might have been. Fueled by a true sense of urgency, it was one of the most exciting performances I’ve ever seen.

After all, it’s a show with big name musical talent. Brooks Ashmanskas’s comedic skill is so endearing here. Capturing the clichés of a slightly aging gay man, with his effeminate gestures, grinning with joy, he is like an arrow to the heart. It’s he who bonds with the central character, Emma, a teenage lesbian played with a rich sweet, voice by Caitlin Kinnunen.

While it’s been a few years since Christopher Sieber was on Broadway, he makes a felicitous return, here. Sieber’s Trent Oliver, a pretentious sounding name for a pretentious sounding actor, is a grand poseur, who comes into his own in the song, “Love Thy Neighbor.” Joined by an ensemble of high school students representing a full rainbow of diversity, it’s one of the show’s highlights.

Even the smaller roles are character driven, with Michael Potts as the principled high school principal, Courtenay Collins as the onerous head of the PTA, and Angie Schworer as the musical comedy gal — a fully grown up version of the girl next door.

Written by Bob Martin of The Drowsy Chaperone fame, with Chad Beguelin, The Prom is not as quirky. But it takes leaps at addressing social issues, in a fun-loving way. Social issues like individuality and inclusiveness “that Liberal Democrats from Broadway” necessarily embrace. What touches us here is the innocence and freshness of the story, no matter how traditional it all clearly is.

With a consistent and even musical style, Matthew Sklar’s songs are easy going Broadway tunes. Simple, clear lyrics by Beguelin, along with the occasional forced rhyme, sustain the energy in this fast-paced, run amok comedy. And Casey Nicholaw’s choreography makes us feel like it’s something we can do, too, except when the kids are on the stage. They outshine with moves no one else can do.

Scott Pask’s scenery is basic, like everything else in high school. And Ann Roth and Matthew Pachtman bring years of Broadway credits to the wardrobe. With a bright red wrap around dress for our leading lady, a shirt adorned with butterflies for Ashmanksas, and plaid flannel shirts for Emma. The patchwork of wardrobe alone tells the story.

But the charm of this musical lies in its wacky characters, the diversity of its actors, and the feel-good story which ends with two girls kissing lovingly on stage, and the promise of a biracial marriage.