We're switching to a new paywall provider in early November. Here's everything you need to know. →

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless May

Elaine May’s Discarded Women in A New Leaf and The Waverly Gallery

Elaine May in The Waverly Gallery | photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe
Elaine May in ‘The Waverly Gallery’ | photo: Brigitte Lacombe

“If you can, I’d appreciate if you didn’t mention my name in your article,” Elaine May once told a New York magazine reporter in a cover story on her film Ishtar in 1987. In some sense, this cheekily absurd quote was merely the latest iteration of May’s performative invisibility act. The bio for her 1959 album Improvisations to Music with Mike Nichols simply states, “Miss May does not exist.” 

Elaine May’s career in entertainment has long been defined by the tension between obscurity and recognition. Who is this titanic figure in entertainment history: the only female director working in the studio system during New Hollywood, or the hidden script doctor punching up some of the best screenplays in the Reagan era? Is she the headliner of Nichols & May who sold out Broadway shows in the Eisenhower administration, or the performer who scarcely made a splash in the Kennedy years? These questions get to the very heart of the enduring mystery surrounding Elaine May for her fans. Is the artist what she reveals, or what she conceals? 

This dichotomy seems particularly pronounced at the extremes of May’s career in narrative entertainment where she engages most with her ambivalence about her anonymity, a tricky relationship with feminism, and her shifting attitudes towards pessimism and sentimentality. May’s performances in both the 1971 film A New Leaf (which she wrote and directed) and the 2018 Broadway production of The Waverly Gallery (a 1999 play written by Kenneth Lonergan) suggest a fascination with playing dismissed, forgotten women. The parallels between the two roles extend far beyond the surface, and when considered in conversation, they provide a revealing glance into the sensibilities of the artist.

While The Waverly Gallery is not a tale of Elaine May’s own creation, playwright Kenneth Lonergan spoke of her rigorous discipline in making sure the character felt lived in. The extent to which she owned such small details as turning her head in a scene leaves little doubt that May took full ownership of the character, even if the words or scenarios were not her own. The role is also something she actively sought—unlike A New Leaf, in which May agreed to co-star only so she could maintain control rather than having the studio select someone she disapproved of. After a career in narrative storytelling spent either toiling largely in obscurity or working to minimize her publicly acknowledged contributions to a project, The Waverly Gallery put her on vulnerable display eight times a week for Broadway audiences. which raises the question of why this part, why now? Why at 86 years old, essentially retired and largely inactive, would May take on a grueling role?

*

“I never knew anything was the matter,” begins Gladys Green at the opening of The Waverly Gallery. The line might as well be the epitaph for both Gladys and May’s A New Leaf character, Henrietta Lowell. Both women appear oblivious to the world around them, flitting about gracelessly but never dangerously. For Henrietta, this lack of social awareness seems to exist because of her surplus of book smarts in the botanical space. Gladys, however, maintains a loose grip on reality because she’s in the throes of dementia—and fading before the audience’s eyes. Across 109 performances between October of 2018 and the following January, there was an immediately palpable tension in the theater watching May lean into the uncertainty built into the character. Perhaps Gladys is just being her normal, flighty self forgetting a detail, or maybe it’s her senility. Audience laughs came with an increasing uncertainty as The Waverly Gallery’s story proceeded.  

The people around Henrietta and Gladys tolerate them in large part due to the clout afforded by their status. The former inherited a fortune and palatial estate from her family, while the latter still maintains a (once) successful art gallery sitting on prime real estate in New York’s fast-gentrifying West Village at the end of the ‘80s. When May introduces us to Henrietta in A New Leaf, she’s at a grand gathering of the New York upper crust—she’s just alone in a chair by the door, unable to drink her tea without spilling it all over an expensive rug. She’s allowed into spaces because of her money but denied any humanity inside of them, a sensation not unfamiliar to Gladys, whose own daughter and grandson openly disparage her declining mental state within earshot.

Elaine May in A NEW LEAF (1971) | Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Both Henrietta and Gladys are women of tremendous value hiding in plain sight, their true worth often lost to those who fail to look beyond their clumsy or inelegant behavior. A New Leaf and The Waverly Gallery play out like tragicomedies for May’s characters as they fall from their status due to impatient, short-tempered family members. For Henrietta, that’s her new husband Henry Graham (Walter Matthau), a formerly wealthy Manhattanite who becomes a gold digger to maintain his high-class lifestyle. He spots her as the perfect mark for his swindle and proceeds to take advantage of her naivete; meanwhile, the sheer shock of any man taking a romantic interest in her leads Henrietta to drop her critical faculties. Henry feigns infatuation for access to her hand in marriage (and, more importantly, her pocketbook), rarely deigning to speak even the most basic of niceties. Not only can he not feign the slightest interest in Henrietta’s desire to discover and name a new fern, he candidly mocks and denigrates her, even as many of his intricate insults fly right over her head.

Gladys, on the other hand, must contend with her blood relatives who grow increasingly irritated by her inability to process conversations and events. On top of her already diminishing mental capacity, the family must also contend with her taking up physical space in their lives as her gallery’s landlord moves to seize the valuable property. Their willingness to tolerate her flights of fancy decreases in proportion to their exposure. Patient explanations quickly descend into bickering and scolding. May’s ambiguity in playing Gladys’ mental presence adds a tragicomic touch to these moments. As she smiles and looks around, the audience is left to wonder if she’s resigned to coping with her treatment or blithely unaware altogether. Whether Gladys exhibits resistance or ignorance is an open question posed by May in any given moment.

While her presence becomes a more present factor in their relationship, she does not become any closer to her family as a result of this proximity. Several scenes play out with Gladys sitting in the living room while the rest of the family chats in the kitchen, and the blocking of the Broadway production emphasized their separate spaces and her relegation away from everyone else. At one point, she even chimes in, “What’s everybody laughing at?” when they share a joke that she can’t hear. Gladys watches them, desperately wanting to be a part of the conversation and pretending to participate passively until she cannot avoid asking for more information. Her grandson, Daniel (played on Broadway by Lucas Hedges), capitulates and gives up on her at the close of Act I. After Gladys heckles him once again asking if he still writes for the newspaper—he’s a speechwriter at the EPA, a fact he reiterates to her prior—Daniel simply decides to indulge the version of reality in her mind and lie, telling her that he does.

In portraying both Henrietta and Gladys, May makes the audience feel the hurt that her characters are unable to feel themselves. The pain of these relatives’ neglect and spite often bounces right off Henrietta and Gladys, only to be passed onto the audience. The genius in both May’s turns lies in the ambiguity with which she approaches them. Are these characters supposed to be objects of pity? Is it acceptable to laugh at their klutziness or forgetfulness? May’s interpretation of the material suggests that it’s both, complicating any simple read of the stories. She never hesitates to make her characters’ behavior the butt of a joke, be it a physical gag, like getting caught in the arm hole of her dress in A New Leaf, or leaning into the uproarious simplicity of an absurd reaction in The Waverly Gallery. These moments never shroud the obvious compassion, though, that May brings to her portrayals of these women. While a key facet of both performances is their unsuspecting innocence, she does occasionally let the sadness peek out.

A more contemporary iteration of either work might cast Henrietta or Gladys somewhere along the spectrum of victimhood or use the characters’ humiliation as a means to rail against patriarchal structures. There’s little, if any, of that in either of May’s performances. Her choices do not lend themselves to an obvious feminist reading, which might come as a disappointment to anyone looking for an overtly political statement from such a trailblazing woman in entertainment.

Further, any potential polemicizing is negated by the fact that Henrietta and Gladys’ worth is defined by what they own rather than who they are. In fact, both characters provide a venue for the emotional maturation of the male protagonist. (Though both roles are categorically leading in nature, the narratives of both A New Leaf and The Waverly Gallery clearly center the journeys of Henry and Daniel.) May’s characters are, more often than not, obstacles to be worked around for the male lead, their fates left at the mercy of these men who only occasionally act with concern when their interests align. 

Yet Henrietta and Gladys exist as so much more than just accessories or portals of emotional discovery for the main men in their lives. In fact, it’s largely because neither character is the protagonist that May can find opportunities for comedy and speak to her overarching sensibility. Directness just isn’t really her style. When the curtain rose on Elaine May in The Waverly Gallery, she did not pause for applause as many performers of similar renown are often inclined to do. Such a gesture, designed to transfer the audience’s feelings for an actress to the character she plays, would be at odds with her entire philosophy. The poignancy of May’s work comes not from broadcasting the fact that these overlooked women’s lives have innate, disrespected value. Instead, she lays a framework that allows the audience to arrive organically at this emotional truth.

*

Joan Allen & Elaine May in 'The Waverly Gallery' | photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe

Unfortunately, it often takes death or its specter to bring about this appreciation. In A New Leaf, Henry very nearly gets his wish to rid himself of Henrietta for good after their canoe capsizes and she reveals her inability to swim. Washing up on shore, he realizes his opportunity to get what he wanted all along: Henrietta’s money without Henrietta herself. At his instruction, Henrietta lets go of the log keeping her afloat, but as the rapids begin to overwhelm her, Henry encounters something unexpected: Alsophila grahami, the titular new leaf that Henrietta discovered and, in spite of his emotional unavailability, named after him. This reminder leads Henry to the startling realization that he does love Henrietta after all. Or maybe it’s resignation—May as writer and director never quite makes it clear. 

This duality of May’s directorial debut becomes tricky to deal with in analysis—how we experience it is different from how she envisioned it. But even in her original preferred cut of A New Leaf, rumored to run over three hours before the studio seized and reedited it, Henry had to murder two other people to grasp this same conclusion. Death always played a central role in Henry’s appreciation of Henrietta’s life, a sobering end to their story that somehow manages to come across as vaguely heartwarming.

May’s primary preoccupation in The Waverly Gallery, of course, is charting Gladys’ decline towards her death. But as Gladys is dragged off-stage for a final time, screaming and pleading for people to pay attention to her, it’s hard not to feel like there’s another life and death the audience is meant to think about: May’s own. Why would a performer peer over the edge of personal oblivion if not to invite contemplation on their own mortality?

Though May is famously press-shy, she has in recent years begun to loosen up, even openly contemplating the legacy of her career. In 2013, she granted Vanity Fair an interview for their Comedy Issue alongside her former comedy partner, the late Mike Nichols. The chat covered much of their history together and provided many enchanting anecdotes about their impressive careers, but it also took many turns into reflective, introspective territory. May gave an answer to the question “What is important in life and art?” that might surprise anyone familiar with her longstanding ethos: 

You know, when I was very young, I thought it didn’t matter what happened to me when I died, so long as my work was immortal. As I age, I think, well, perhaps if I had to trade dying right now and being immortal with just living on, I would choose living on. I never thought I would say that. I feel it’s so unethical and wrong.

This reconsideration of her value system and the priority she places on life over art loomed large over the Broadway production of The Waverly Gallery. Whether intentionally or coincidentally, the production played at the John Golden Theater, the very same venue in which May and Nichols played to packed crowds six decades earlier. Her history as a performer was inescapable inside the theater, as was the sense that something was coming full circle.

On that same stage, she once again drew laughter and applause—but also gasps and sobs. Experiencing Elaine May’s performance in The Waverly Gallery was akin to trying to catch sand as it passes through your fingers. She made the audience aware of the fine textures as she masterfully navigated the gradual onset of Gladys’ dementia while also making them cognizant of her own transient existence. Those familiar with May’s work and her history within the venue felt a tangible pain watching a legend fade before our eyes. As Gladys’ extended family prepares to take away her apartment and move her into their own home, she pleads for her autonomy, begging them, “I want to go to New York, I want to get a job!” Gladys, like May herself, wants to be useful above all else until the bitter end. 

May did not use the show as a platform to beg audiences to reconsider her legacy, her shameful lack of canonization, or the unfairness of industry conditions that still inhibit female success in the industry. At least, not directly. In typical Elaine May fashion, someone else made the case for her. Lonergan wrote The Waverly Gallery as a memory play about his own grandmother, and that tension of playing out past events in the present tense becomes especially painful in Daniel’s final soliloquy detailing Gladys’ death. “After that,” he ruefully remembers, “it was a lot easier to remember what she was like before.” The line speaks to a sad truth: far too often, our culture waits until it’s far too late to appreciate legends and icons. This is doubly true for anyone, like May, who would leave behind a complicated legacy. 

“It’s not true that if you try hard enough, you’ll prevail in the end,” Daniel continues. “Because so many people try so hard, and they don’t prevail. But they keep trying. They keep struggling. And they love each other so much—it makes you think it must be worth a lot to be alive.” While May does not make the sentimental appeal herself, it’s hard not to think of her in this plea to value life as it unfolds before us. 

Her roles in The Waverly Gallery and A New Leaf invite us to appreciate and savor the people around us, even and especially those who grate against our last nerve or push all our buttons. May has identified a key flaw in human behavior: we cannot truly appreciate something until its demise or disappearance stares us directly in the face. The work might live forever, whether on film or in the memory of anyone lucky enough to catch her live performance, but their bodies will not. We can take the easy way out and eulogize them when they’re gone, or we can take up the difficult humanistic work of loving them while they’re still here.