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Critic’s Notebook: Star turns that serve the Broadway play — Elaine May, Daniel Radcliffe and Janet McTeer show how it’s done

Critic’s Notebook: Star turns that serve the Broadway play — Elaine May, Daniel Radcliffe and Janet McTeer show how it’s done
Elaine May in Kenneth Lonergan's "The Waverly Gallery," directed by Lila Neugebauer at the Golden Theatre. (Brigitte Lacombe)

When it comes to playwriting, Broadway has a supply problem. Although the new generation of American dramatists is blazingly talented, the great majority of these writers prefer the creative flexibility of more intimate stages.

New dramas that can fill Broadway’s grand proscenium houses aren’t rolling off the assembly line. But there’s never any shortage of brilliant actors. And the right talent can sometimes turn the middling and the middlebrow into must-see theater.

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On Broadway this fall, three respectable plays that pose no danger of becoming modern classics are given a boost by the marquee names drawing in the crowds. Celebrity casting isn’t the secret of success. No one could describe Elaine May in “The Waverly Gallery,” Daniel Radcliffe in “The Lifespan of a Fact” or Janet McTeer in “Bernhardt/Hamlet” as Hollywood carpetbaggers prestige-hunting between movie gigs.

Broadway needs the 86-year-old May, a sui generis legend, more than she needs Broadway. Radcliffe, his fortune made as the film face of Harry Potter, seems to choose projects more on the basis of artistic growth than career enhancement. And McTeer, the Tony-winning English actress who’s a celebrity only among connoisseurs of the finest acting, doesn’t grace American stages often enough but whenever she does it’s an unmissable event.

When Kenneth Lonergan’s “The Waverly Gallery” had its New York premiere off-Broadway in 2000, I never would have imagined that 18 years later, the play’s Broadway premiere at the Golden Theatre would be brightening an otherwise mixed-bag season. It’s not that I wasn’t moved by Lonergan’s autobiographical drama, written to preserve the memory of his grandmother as senility clouds her mind and her family struggles to care for her.

In the play’s off-Broadway premiere, Eileen Heckart brought a bracing astringency to the character of Gladys Green, an old school Greenwich Village lefty, once a lawyer and still the proprietor of an art gallery that is more hobby than business. But the scrupulously well-observed drama seemed almost too modest a canvas for Heckart. May creates an even larger impression in the role, but Lila Neugebauer’s production expands to accommodate her extraordinary performance.

If May finds a surprising amount of humor in Gladys’ confusion, it’s not because she’s trying to convert Lonergan’s naturalistic dialogue into laugh lines. Her talent to amuse is simply coded in her DNA. But May’s comedy, as anyone who has seen her classic routines with Mike Nichols can attest, is rooted in the recognizable. She captures Gladys’ circular behavior — the repeated conversation starters, the same lost words, the panic over missing keys that are wrapped around her wrist — with a realism so acute it provokes laughter as a kind of defense.

When I was in New York, I happened to spend a little time with an elderly friend with memory problems, so I knew what it meant when Gladys went on a fishing expedition inside her bag: Whatever it was she was searching for would never be found. The glint of baffled urgency in May’s eyes cries out for a medical diagnosis. But the performance is never showy in its authenticity. This is an ensemble play, and it is mainly through May’s exchanges with her fellow actors that she imparts what is essential and ineradicable about her character’s vanishing personality.

In Gladys’ tender interactions with her grandson Daniel (an affecting Lucas Hedges), who lives next door to her and has reason to feel overtaxed by her condition, May shows us the instinctive kindness that informed not only Gladys’ politics but also her private life. With Michael Cera’s Don Bowman, a floundering artist who wanders into Gladys’ gallery one day and is invited to move in and show his work, May radiates the communal (and, yes, undeniably chaotic) spirit of a bygone era that is growing more distant every day.

When Gladys’ daughter, Ellen (Joan Allen), and son-in-law, Howard (David Cromer), both psychiatrists with more cut-and-dried personalities, grow frustrated with her repetitive chatter and uncooperative behavior, a hurt look washes over May’s face that brings to mind a beloved pet that’s been swatted with a newspaper. She can’t understand why everyone she loves is so furious just because she wants to feed the dog table scraps, make incessant small talk and adjust her hearing aid after it has already been set.

“The Waverly Gallery” is deeply moving, but it’s a small-scale work. I kept wanting the play to be about more than Gladys’ decline and the strained perseverance of a loving family. Lonergan suggests that what’s fading isn’t just one woman’s sharp mind but a particular worldview, a way of life no longer possible in a New York that values real estate more than relationships.

These elements are embedded in the play, which builds to a crisis when Gladys is forced to give up the gallery that is her connection with the outside world. But they remain inchoate. May, however, embodies both what is explicit and implicit in the drama. Her unforgettable performance is a testament to a loss that ripples beyond her character.

Daniel Radcliffe in "The Lifespan of a Fact," directed by Leigh Silverman at Studio 54.
Daniel Radcliffe in "The Lifespan of a Fact," directed by Leigh Silverman at Studio 54. (Peter Cunningham)

A debate has cropped up about whether “The Lifespan of a Fact,” under the direction of Leigh Silverman at Studio 54, credibly explores the journalistic conflict between factual accuracy and poetic license in long-form reporting. The play, by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell, was inspired by the account of the strained working relationship between essayist John D’Agata and fact checker Jim Fingal. As Fingal looked more closely into the embellishments of D’Agata’s essay, the fact-checking process spun out of control.

Some of the criticism directed at the play has been literal-minded to a Fingal-esque fault. A comedy about ink-stained kvetches, “The Lifespan of a Fact” amounts to a kind of fable about the tension between style and truth that’s inherent in the writer-editor relationship. The political turmoil over the topic of “fake news” has changed the context in which we grapple with the subject, but the play hasn’t much to say about creeping authoritarianism and the attacks on 1st Amendment freedoms.

“The Lifespan of a Fact” is an entertaining and efficient comedy about journalism that freely uses exaggeration as a technique of lighthearted theatrical investigation. It’s as sparkling and smart as a Vanity Fair exposé — and no more (or less) profound.

After a flatfooted setup, the play takes off on a giddy ride that culminates in a standoff between Bobby Cannavale’s John and Radcliffe’s Jim. The adjudicator of their battle is Cherry Jones’ Emily, the editor of the publication that is about to go to press with John’s latest masterpiece, if only Jim, an underling at the magazine given an opportunity to prove himself, can stop niggling over every damn word in the piece.

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The actors are cracklingly good. Jones deserves a meatier role, but her character serves as a reality-check for the zaniness that occurs after Jim flies himself to John’s home in Las Vegas to review his queries in person. He’s hoping to have more success than he’s had on the phone with an author hellbent on defending every indefensible liberty in the story.

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Cannavale, who towers over the diminutive Radcliffe, is an ideal acting foil for his young costar. His John is a rumpled bear of a man, who’s been holed up in the house that belonged to his late mother. Still grieving her loss, he’s in no mood to be harassed by an ambitious Harvard hairsplitter who thinks creative nonfiction is an oxymoron. John’s indifference to accuracy only inflames Jim’s compulsive persnicketiness.

Radcliffe’s Jim drives the comedy. He understands that his fanatical nature can be insufferable, but he can’t help himself. He has pages and pages of evidence contradicting names, numbers, dates, colors — you name it. For him, there’s something more at stake than a magazine article or a promotion: Truth, the basis of our shared reality, is on the line.

Schematic as it is, “The Lifespan of a Fact” isn’t always easy to swallow. But I believed every moment of Radcliffe’s committed performance, from his faultless American accent to the way he quakingly argues his character’s case. Harry Potter will always be the role that defines him, but his confidence as a stage actor keeps growing along with his gift for comic characterizations. You’ll have to take my journalistic word that his performance is among the brightest this Broadway season.

Janet McTeer in Theresa Rebeck's "Bernhardt/Hamlet," directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel at American Airlines Theatre.
Janet McTeer in Theresa Rebeck's "Bernhardt/Hamlet," directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel at American Airlines Theatre. (Joan Marcus)

There aren’t many actors who could stand the test of playing Sarah Bernhardt, never mind the challenge of playing the Divine Sarah as she rehearses the role of Hamlet, one of the illustrious French actress’ more controversial triumphs. But McTeer, who won a Tony for her performance as Nora in “A Doll’s House” (perhaps the finest piece of Ibsen acting I’ve seen) was more than up to the task in Theresa Rebeck’s “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” which I saw before it ended its run at the American Airlines Theatre.

The play isn’t the supplest or most stylish of works, but it treats Bernhardt as a fully dimensional artist while empathizing with her plight as an aging female star frustrated by the paucity of worthy roles. The politics of “Bernhardt/Hamlet” are sadly evergreen. But more persuasive than the playwright’s impassioned discussion of gender disparities in the arts is the fierce grace of McTeer’s galloping portrayal.

Whatever music Moritz von Stuelpnagel managed to coax through his direction from the overwritten drama came from the star of this Roundabout Theatre Company production. McTeer’s voice, one of the most seductive instruments in the English-language theater, vibrates with a tone that can simultaneously encompass gaiety and gravity.

Rebeck belabors scenes to the point that I couldn’t imagine sitting through “Bernhardt/Hamlet” with a lesser actor in the lead role. But I regret not being able to see the production again to marvel at McTeer’s majesty. One performer in her prime incarnated another — and in the process gave us another example this Broadway season of the special alchemy of a transcendent talent shrewdly cast.

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