Actors Lucas Hedges and Michael Cera share what it’s like to be onstage with Elaine May
For Lucas Hedges, the first day of rehearsal is like the first day of the new school year.
He was so keyed up before the company meet-and-greet for “The Waverly Gallery,” the Kenneth Lonergan drama now in previews at Broadway’s John Golden Theatre, that he did yoga twice.
“I did online yoga,” he said. “I didn’t go to two classes. It didn’t really help. I always end up smiling way too much and hugging the producers a lot. But the second we started reading, I knew why I was there.”
Hedges, not surprisingly, called Lonergan his favorite writer. He received a supporting Oscar nomination for his performance in Lonergan’s 2016 film “Manchester by the Sea,” the role that catapulted him into national attention. But actors seem to be universally drawn to the slow simmer of Lonergan’s psychologically unerring dramas.
The phrase “slow simmer” came directly from Michael Cera, another “Waverly Gallery” cast member, who was sitting across from Hedges at the Algonquin Hotel, where we met for tea to talk about the production. The dream ensemble, under the direction of Lila Neugebauer, is rounded out by Elaine May (yes, that Elaine May), Tony-winner Joan Allen and David Cromer, who won a Tony this year for his staging of “The Band’s Visit” and who can be coaxed into flexing his acting muscles when the right part comes his way.
It would be understandable for a 21-year-old actor making his Broadway debut to have few butterflies, and Hedges was vibrating like a plucked string. During the course of our conversation, Cera, a veteran actor at 30, became like an older brother to Hedges, offering in the spirit of diffident camaraderie the benefits of his Broadway experience in two other Lonergan plays, “This Is Our Youth” and “Lobby Hero.”
Rehearsals were at the “table-work” stage, that phase when members of the company, still just getting acquainted, sit around dissecting the play scene by scene. Too many cooks are said to spoil the broth, but what’s it like to be preparing the way for a production with a cast that includes two world-class directors?
“It’s like we’re in the best English class ever,” Hedges answered with coltish enthusiasm. Cera agreed, but acknowledged that the situation is “odd.”
“It’s been a cerebral process so far,” he said. “Breaking down scenes and everybody talking and unpacking. Elaine and David are both wearing their actor hats. They have a nose for the essence of a moment, so they’ll find that in maybe a more efficient way.”
“But first, it feels as if everybody is kind and so considerate,” Hedges said. “Before anything else, it feels as if we’re with good people.”
Theater isn’t natural. You have to find a way to make something that you know is going to happen surprise you.
“The Waverly Gallery,” which had its New York premiere in 2000 in a production that starred the one and rasping only Eileen Heckart, is a memory play. Or as Hedges compendiously described it: “It’s a memory play told from the perspective of the grandson about his grandmother, who loses her ability to remember things.”
Hedges, who plays Daniel, the grandson of Gladys (incarnated by May), finds “extreme beauty in that simple description” of a work Lonergan dedicated to his grandmother and mother. Painfully, humorously and lovingly autobiographical, the play, set between 1989 and 1991, revolves around a New York family that Daniel memorably categorizes as “liberal Upper West Side atheistic Jewish intellectuals” who “really like German choral music.”
Gladys, an old-school Greenwich Village lefty who owns a Washington Square art gallery around the corner from her apartment building, where her grandson also lives, is rapidly losing her words and, over time, her ability to care for herself. But before her memory problems become disabling, she allows an itinerant New England artist named Don to not only show his work at her gallery but also to sleep on a cot in the back of the shop.
Cera plays Don, the eccentric stray whom Gladys’ daughter, Ellen (Allen), and Ellen’s second husband, Howard (Cromer), both Manhattan psychiatrists, insist on meeting before he moves into the gallery. Gladys’ trusting nature and mental decline make her an easy target, but the true menace of the play is the deterioration wreaked by time — on Gladys’ mind, on a Greenwich Village that is becoming simultaneously more dangerous and more expensive (putting in jeopardy the lease on the gallery) and on a loving family faced with a healthcare dilemma in which there is no good solution.
“Kenny said today that this is a play about what people do when there’s nothing to do,” Cera said. “The big problem of Gladys’ health is completely out of their control. But so even are the small things, like the practicalities of her living situation and the way she gets shut out of her own gallery.”
Cera and Hedges were thrilled to be working with May, whose career as a screenwriter, director, actor and Mike Nichols’ crackling comedy partner is so singular that even her notorious flop (“Ishtar”) is the stuff of legend.
“I hope to God I’m anywhere near that cool when I’m 86 years old,” Cera said. “She’s the smartest person in the room and funny and sweet. I’m learning from the kinds of questions she’s asking.”
Hedges was even more effusive: “Sometimes she opens her mouth and offers something so insightful about my character. She’s so generous and kind, and when I have doubts, I just have to look at her, and seeing her is enough. The play is about my character’s memory of her character, so it’s really perfect that the part is being played by someone worth talking about.”
Both Hedges and Cera started acting when they were young, but their routes were different. Cera, who found cult fame on the TV series “Arrested Development” before turning his slacker vulnerabilities to the big screen with “Juno” and “Superbad,” learned his craft on the job. Hedges, the son of novelist, playwright and screenwriter Peter Hedges, was born into the New York theater community and pursued training for a year at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where, in addition to getting some valuable instruction, he recalled being told that he was “really bad.”
“Halfway through that year, ‘Manchester by the Sea’ came out, so I was extremely confused,” he said. “I had no idea who to believe or what to believe. I was sort of stuck in an abusive relationship with all my teachers.”
“Good thing you pulled out of that,” Cera interjected.
“Kenny is honestly the one who changed everything,” Hedges said.
Hedges’ father and Lonergan were off-Broadway playwrights who came up together in the 1980s. Hedges was delighted to learn that Lonergan met him when he was just a toddler, and he was overjoyed when he was shown a photo of his father and Lonergan together, because he had never seen them hanging out.
But even with all the family connections, Hedges had to audition multiple times for “Manchester.” Eventually, Lonergan gave him the part. “But even more, he gave me technique,” Hedges said.
He credits the few words Lonergan would offer between takes as the secret ingredient in a performance that comes across as completely spontaneous and natural. Hedges summoned the same magic in Greta Gerwig’s 2017 film “Lady Bird,” proving himself to be a speedy learner.
Cera asked Hedges whether they rehearsed a lot before shooting “Manchester.” Hedges, whose disarming openness softens the glare of his golden boy looks, answered, “I don’t remember it helping. I didn’t know how to turn it to my advantage.”
Stage fright has dogged him. Hedges told a story about playing Puck in a school production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and being so overcome with nerves that he bent down to tie his shoe during one of his speeches and for another monologue brought someone up from the audience to distract himself from his terror.
“Sounds like a blackout,” Cera said.
“Theater just scared the [crap] out of me,” Hedges said. “So I knew I had to train.”
Hedges wondered if, without formal acting training, Cera thinks in terms of “objectives” and “intentions.” “I don’t think in that vocabulary specifically,” Cera said. “But maybe I do without assigning it.”
“That’s really cool,” Hedges replied.
Although Cera wasn’t in the original productions of the plays that made Lonergan’s reputation, it’s hard to imagine them now without him. He’s become as quintessential a Lonergan actor as Mark Ruffalo or Josh Hamilton, both of whom starred in “This Is Our Youth” when the play had its New York premiere in 1996.
No, Cera didn’t have to audition for “This Is Our Youth.” (Hedges wanted to know.) It was Kieran Culkin who brought Lonergan and him together. Culkin wanted to play Dennis in “This Is Our Youth” and gave the script to Cera, who he rightly assumed would make a perfect Warren. “Kieran basically put the bug in Kenny’s ear,” he said.
Kenny said ... this is a play about what people do when there’s nothing to do
Cera is on a Lonergan roll. His performance in “Lobby Hero,” his second stint on Broadway, earned him a Tony nomination this year.
“Have you felt a shift in yourself as an actor since working this much onstage?” Hedges asked.
“I couldn’t really say, but you get to practice more,” Cera replied. “The accumulated hours of performing is unusual.”
“You don’t really get to act all that much inside a movie,” Hedges mused.
“It’s a lot of idling and prepping,” Cera agreed.
“It’s really easy for me to fall into a pattern, so I’m trying on this one to stay loose and to get out of my head. I’m predicting a fight, but it’s one I’m really up for.”
Hedges explained his thinking: “Theater isn’t natural. I mean it is, but it’s also artificial. You have to find a way to make something that you know is going to happen surprise you. That goes against what we as humans are supposed to do, how we’re supposed to be in our environment.”
Cera admitted that the challenge of sustaining a performance is the toughest part of the job, “but it’s so worth it.”
“Do you, like, have no social life when you do a play?” Hedges asked, uncertain whether he wanted to hear the answer.
“No, you kind of do,” Cera replied. “Friends come see the show, you go out, hang with people during the day if they’re around. You make it work.”
A look of relief washed over Hedges’ face.
Cera told a story that made them both feel better: “A friend of mine saw ‘Lobby Hero’ and said afterward that they shouldn’t let actors read scenes from Kenny’s plays in acting class. They should make them read from a failed pilot, because actors shouldn’t get used to writing that offers so much to work with. It will only spoil you.”
“It’s really rare to work with such great source material,” Hedges concurred, beamingly.
Follow me @charlesmcnulty
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