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.
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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.”
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