For the liner notes to the peerless comedy duo Nichols and May’s 1959 album Improvisations to Music, Elaine May famously provided the following terse bio: “Miss May does not exist.” At the time, May and her partner, Mike Nichols, were beginning their meteoric rise as the smartest, most literate, and funniest—not to mention most famous—comedy duo of their era, performing hyperarticulate, mordantly hilarious sketches with an undertow of melancholy that appealed to both New York sophisticates (catching them at such nightclubs as the Blue Angel and later on Broadway) and the wider audience watching on TV. Despite her fame (and current status as a legend/icon), May’s early self-penned bio is an apt one: As a performer, writer, and director, she has created an indelible body of work while largely staying, as a person, out of the public eye—here but not here.
It’s fitting then that, at age 86, May made her triumphant return to the Broadway stage this season, after more than 50 years, playing a relentlessly voluble woman who is slowly losing her grip on her existence, her identity dissolving before our eyes, in the superb Broadway revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery. As Gladys Green, a West Village gallery owner and former lawyer fighting to talk her way through the ravages of dementia, May gave—in a season teeming with mightily talented actresses, from Glenda Jackson and Janet McTeer to Annette Bening and Laurie Metcalf—the most thrilling and memorable performance I’ve seen in a long time. Genuinely hilarious and utterly heartbreaking, May’s performance should—and I believe will—earn her this year’s Tony Award for best actress in a play.
I first became aware of May as a boy, when my father would play me his old Nichols and May records. Though a lot of it went over my head, I still laughed and knew that this was the kind of insightful, sophisticated humor that I wanted to make my own. As I got older, I started getting the references, appreciating the subtleties, and marveling at their ability to satirize contemporary life with surreal flights of fancy and complete conviction. Listen to May as a psychoanalyst unravel during a session to uproarious effect while letting us feel the genuine pain and loneliness beneath the surface in "Merry Christmas, Doctor.”
After Nichols and May split up in the early 1960s, Nichols of course went on to become, as a director, a colossus of the stage and screen. May went on to her own career—more wayward but equally legendary—as a film director (The Heartbreak Kid; Mikey and Nicky; Ishtar), screenwriter (Heaven Can Wait; The Birdcage), and script doctor (Tootsie, among many others). But I’m more interested in her here as a performer. And in the pre-YouTube days, my first chance to see (as opposed to hear) her in action came via a VHS tape of her 1971 black comedy, A New Leaf, which she wrote, directed, and starred in. The film costarred Walter Matthau as Henry Graham, a dissolute playboy who, after losing all his money, decides to marry a rich woman—and then kill her. As his target, Henrietta Lowell, a ditzy, bespectacled, awkward, and accident-prone botanist, May gives a quintessentially Elaine May performance—painfully funny and sweetly sincere—playing a woman oblivious to the darker motives of the man she loves.
In 1993, more than three decades after their professional breakup as a comedy duo, Nichols and May reunited for two performances on Broadway to benefit Friends in Deed, a nonprofit that Nichols had cofounded with his friend Cynthia O’Neal in response to the AIDS crisis. I was lucky enough to score a ticket to one of those evenings, and it remains one of the greatest nights that I’ve ever spent in a theater, seeing old recordings come to life and watching a pair of comic geniuses give and experience joy in the here and now, inhabiting their urban neurotic characters with meticulous detail, unmatched satirical flair, and unvarnished truthfulness.
“Mother and Son”:
I’ve never gotten the chance to meet May, though I did get to spend some time with Nichols. Once, when I asked him about what it was like performing with her, he told me, “Elaine loved to improvise, and I just wanted to stick to my lines, so she forced me to always stay awake and alive—and terrified, in the best sense of the word. The other great joy, with the characters we created, was getting to make fun of something and be it at the same time. On the nights when we were really in sync, you didn’t want it to end, you just wanted to stay up there forever.”
Nichols, sadly, died in 2014, so his virtuoso partnership with May now only exists on audio and video recordings. Which is part of what made it so joyous and poignant to get to watch May in action in Lonergan’s gorgeously elegiac play, whose superb cast also included Lucas Hedges and Michael Cera. There she was, as she had with Nichols, showing us all of her character’s laughable foibles, mining every comic nuance, while inhabiting her completely. The part involved no improvisation—Lonergan is a precise writer—but it was devastating to watch a woman making it up as she goes along, as words, names, facts, memories, and ultimately her mind itself slip away. It was a performance that, for as long as my own mind remains intact, I’ll never forget.