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‘The Waverly Gallery’ Playwright Kenneth Lonergan Really Wants a Tony Award – for Elaine May (Guest Blog)

”It’s not my fault that the rage today is for 90-minute intermission-less shows,“ Lonergan says of his singular approach to stage and filmed projects

We can assume that all the Tony nominees hope to hear their names announced this Sunday from the stage of Radio City Musical Hall. But while playwright Kenneth Lonergan says it would be nice if “The Waverly Gallery” wins Best Revival of a Play, he mostly hopes to hear the name of his 87-year-old leading lady.

“I’d much rather see Elaine May win Best Actress,” Lonergan said. He even penned a full- page ad in the New York Times this week saying, “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.”

Lonergan himself is no stranger to awards, winning a screenwriting Oscar for 2016’s “Manchester by the Sea,” but he has never won the Tony. He is also no stranger to controversy, particularly when it comes to his relationship with Hollywood. Since famously fighting a six-year battle over “Margaret,” a movie he wrote and directed that finally hit theaters at 2011, his thoughts on control have been cemented. “As a screenwriter, you can’t be satisfactorily served if you don’t direct your own material,” he said. “In the theater, everyone is there to serve you.”

That sentiment is confirmed by the director of “The Waverly Gallery,” Lila Neugebauer. She claimed the playwright might be a stickler for his script but that he is anything but dictatorial. “Kenneth is joyfully collaborative,” she said. “We were wedded to his words as well. They provide a richly, delicately detailed map.”

Lonergan had just flown home to New York from London, where he attended the West End opening of “The Starry Messenger,” written in 2009, with his best friend, Matthew Broderick, in the leading role. Also starring Elizabeth McGovern, the production has received mixed reviews, and runs just under a stubborn three hours. “It’s not my fault that the rage today is for 90-minute intermission-less shows,” Lonergan said. “People should stay home if they can’t sit still for longer.” And while he applauds qualified film actors hitting the stage, he resents the fact “that tickets cost so much, producers feel required to hire a movie star to sell them.”

Meanwhile, revivals of Lonergan’s early work is happening with increasing frequency. “This Is Our Youth” and “Lobby Hero” both received Broadway revivals in the last few years. Is there a temptation to tweak, especially when looking back over words written decades ago? “I do not tinker much after the fact,” he said. “My feeling is that the experience is so immersive and exhaustive that if you were satisfied then, odds are you’d be now.” But he acknowledged that we live in a “highly sensitized moment,” especially when it comes to female roles. “But it helps to look back and say, ‘OK, that was the past, there was injustice.’ But audiences are smart enough to understand that not everything should be updated.”

Lonergan isn’t just resting on his laurels. He is hard at work on a new play, a screenplay and a TV series. He remains a colorful, sometimes cantankerous figure, but it helps to have loyal friends like Michael Cera, (who has appeared in all three of his recent Broadway revivals), Matt Damon (who helped make “Manchester” happen) and Martin Scorsese (who hired him for script doctoring on “Gangs of New York”).

Few doubt his talents and lasting impact. “I admire Kenny,” Oscar- and Tony-nominated writer Douglas McGrath said. “He’s serious without being pretentious and also without losing his sense of humor.”

Oren Jacoby, whose documentary on Broadway will be released later this year, added, “Lonergan is one of the very few contemporary playwrights who has mastered the art of translating emotional pain into a cathartic and uplifting experience.”

The Tony Awards, hosted by James Corden, will air on CBS Sunday at 8 p.m. ET.

For the record: A previous version of this story incorrectly suggested that the London production of “The Starry Messenger” received only tepid reviews.



Mary Murphy is magazine and TV journalist and an associate professor at the USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism. Michele Willens is a New York-based writer and NPR theater commentator. They are writing a book on the history of entertainment journalism.

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