just asking questions

Elaine May Interviews Kenneth Lonergan

Elaine May. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

Editor’s note: Elaine May, who starred in the Broadway revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery this past season, is nominated for the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play. The show itself is up for Best Revival of a Play. (Both won Drama Desk Awards in the same categories last night.) In advance of the June 9 awards night, they corresponded last week. With difficulty.

Dear Kenny,

Last week our producer Scott Rudin told me that Maureen Dowd had consented to be interviewed by me. I was thrilled. He said there was no money in it and once again promised me a garbage disposal.

Yesterday he told me that Vulture would publish my interview with you if it were back and forth, 220 words, and in by tomorrow. That leaves me very little time and you are in England so I’m just going to email you all the questions and pretend I hear your answers. If I run out of time I may have to use some of the questions I was going to ask Maureen Dowd.

Dear Elaine,

How are you? I got a message from Scott Rudin saying you were going to interview me via email for Vulture. I don’t know about you but I don’t see the point in doing an interview that’s only 220 words long. There was also something about a garbage disposal which I didn’t understand. I hope it’s not that same story that’s been going around town about Scott promising to install a garbage disposal for you if you’d be in The Waverly Gallery. That story has been making the rounds all year and I still don’t understand it. If you want a garbage disposal in your apartment it’s insane to ask Scott Rudin for one. You’re a huge star. All you have to do is pick up the phone and say, “This is Elaine May, and I want a garbage disposal installed in my apartment.” Believe me, you’ll have more garbage-disposal installation companies banging at your door than you know what to do with. Why drag Scott into it? But I digress. I’m in England and for some reason the server I’m using keeps scrambling my incoming emails. Consequently, your first question, for example, reads like this:

S8RGQVDVtm9pcu0wG77 waverlyIjeiK74ychunk crKx8k6uM2AkbqjVmmL_musicalUea8JsKD4N JbyGjhmoney CaJXPZLCrE1ZIza8eH6dTFjxOl 6hg0. p0CP3xq.ClyXDJGU1wWY_dJF3TB now?

Obviously this is difficult to answer. I can pick out the words “Waverly,” “chunk,” “musical,” and “money,” but I can’t make much headway beyond that. If you are suggesting that I could make more money writing musicals than plays like The Waverly Gallery, I totally agree but nobody is really asking me.

CKPrLnX2ohoweEhwqywhatsodsxPk puqdoHgvEASczdlCmBLjA0JEglsZ2siX9h7Zgc typing?

This question seems a little general to me. I can pick out “how,” “what,” “do,” and “typing.” If you don’t mind I’ll just skip to the next one.


Again, hard to see what you are driving at. But if you think it’s hilarious that I sometimes feel sad and gloomy, I guess that’s just your sense of humor. Personally I don’t find it all that funny.

.5J7.vQYo+nzequivelntEZfeminismdzr3DaMJ guyismau6Hv4XRXxylnESnXNdmanismwp[?

Finally, something I can sink my teeth into. I am one hundred percent in favor of feminism as long as it falls under the umbrella of humanism, which to me is the really important thing. I don’t know if it’s the computer or you, and I hope this doesn’t sound like mansplaining, but I assume you know that guyism and manism are not real words.

And what about you?

This one came through unscrambled, but I can’t tell what you’re referring to, so it’s kind of hard to be specific. If you’re asking me if I have ever been guilty of guyism or manism, I have to say in my own defense that I’m a human being like everybody else and while my life hasn’t been perfect, I have always tried to treat people as individuals and not lump them into categories which only diminish what’s special about them. If that makes me old-fashioned then so be it.

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I can’t tell if there is anything left of your question at all in this one. To tell you the truth I don’t see what would have been so hard about picking up the phone and calling me, instead of making me jump through these hoops.
But we’ve meant so much to each other this year and you are literally the last person I would ever want to pick a fight with. Let’s just try to remember the good times and get through this nightmare with some semblance of self-respect.

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If I understand this one correctly, thank you. I know my plays sometimes run a little long, but to have you of all people characterize them as special, colorful or riveting means more to me than I feel comfortable expressing in a public interview. Maybe I’ll write you a little note, just between the two of us, and not cheapen my feelings by exposing them to public scrutiny. I don’t want to get up on a soapbox here but we used to have a little something in this country called “Privacy.” And if that’s the price of technology, then I think maybe it’s time to ask ourselves if it’s worth it? Are we only as good as our latest tweet? I think we’re a little better than that. I know it sounds corny, but I think people are still capable of great things. I think our brightest days are still ahead of us. It’s so easy to be cynical about this country, especially given the current administration. I don’t think there’s any special mystery about Trumpism. He’s given his billionaire friends and their lackeys in Congress trillions of dollars in tax cuts, his Evangelical base is getting their wish list of ultra-conservative judges, and the sociopathic xenophobic element in his base are sick of do-gooder liberals who can’t even remember that they exist. What’s the big mystery? Personally I think we’d better clean up our own act if we really want to think about effectively fighting somebody who talks like a flaming jackass but seems to have a better grasp of how to consolidate support than anybody in the Democratic camp has demonstrated so far.

LRXrzP6HE5eR.OO2KviK01Nv3gBQfSodwMHkDN fxfIpkGymLCHKi5bsvj9V00xuKqWjQrPyjsU9H Scott Rudin.

Honestly, Elaine, if you can’t let go of the garbage disposal thing there’s really nothing I can do about it. I told you I think you should call up a regular company, and they’ll deal with it. I love you, but you’re incredibly stubborn, and frankly it’s not very attractive. You have so much going for you. My God, you’re one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. Why chain your intellect to a fucking trash compactor? This is insane.

+5Z/ubc3w+hmR6eHXnQ+B6izgAcZNw64aparents D5lTvQUBmpsycho4Tr== +nRnpkcd9EfSYoA5eLZ0y jqhZ2J+rsjKvarWzY+ZXuHR/HELod?

OK. I can’t tell if you’re referring to my parents, who were psychoanalysts, or if you’re calling me a psycho. I don’t think I’ve ever said anything deliberately hurtful to you, but if that’s how you’re going to talk to me, it may be time to re-evaluate our relationship. On the other hand, if you’re just asking about my folks, everyone always asks if they psychoanalyzed me as a child, at home, but it really doesn’t work that way. To tell you the truth the subject makes me slightly uncomfortable for reasons I don’t entirely understand and if you don’t mind I’d like to move on to the next question.

Interesting. e=-+YUYou’re very attractive. 32dIOXX=c Do you think your looks have influenced the way you were treated when you began?

For some reason this one came through just fine. It’s true that people are constantly telling me how attractive I am, but it’s never really affected me that I’m aware of. I guess when I was younger, I did sometimes worry people might not take me seriously because they were so focused on my looks, but after a while I began to realize that what really counts is what’s inside, and if people can’t see past the surface that’s not my problem. The important thing is not to let other people define you. At least that’s my takeaway. Sometimes I just want to be alone with my thoughts, but you can’t have everything.

I thought so. What’s your favorite food? Or foods. You probably have more than one.

Wow, crystal clear! It’s really hard to pick because I’m kind of a gourmand, but I’d probably say the fried clams at Nicky’s Cruisin’ Diner near the airport in Bangor, Maine. They’re incredible.

Yes, I love that, too. Is there anything in life you would change if you had the chance?

For one thing, I’d like it better if you didn’t lie to me about enjoying Nicky’s fried clams when I know you’ve been on the Pritikin diet for the last thirty-five years.

Really. I wouldn’t have guessed that. If you could choose between living to a very old age and dying unknown, or living only a couple of years more and achieving immortality as a playwright, which one would it be?

Man, that’s a tough one. Where’s that computer scrambler when you need it! I can’t even decide what to order for dinner at a restaurant. Why are you pressuring me? It seems so inappropriate. All I ever did was try to get you to like me. I don’t understand what’s happening.

Good answer. You know how sometimes you lie in bed at night and think, what if my life were all a dream and I’m in a coma? Or what if I’m just one of a gaggle of helium balloons and something happens to my string and I drift off into space and none of my gaggle notices. The second one makes most people anxious but I just laugh it off and turn on the light. What about you?

The truth is, sometimes I wish we had met when we were both a lot younger, and other times I feel like there’s no way it could possibly have worked out, and maybe I just dodged a really big bullet. Maybe we both did. I have a wonderful marriage and a beautiful daughter and I’m not really looking for anything else, either in the present or the past. Aren’t they kind of the same thing, anyway? Whatever may exist in the world beyond our senses has to be filtered through our imaginations anyway, so how do you decide what’s real and what isn’t? I think it’s the height of arrogance to suggest that human beings could possibly discern the mind of God — if there is a God — when all of life is just a dream dreamt by a slumbering giant. Wouldn’t it be better to focus on the Now? That’s what I think, anyway. I’m not sure if I answered your question.

Really, you’re a strange guy. Do you shop for yourself?

Yes, but I have a lot of trouble buying pants.

Uh huh. What’s the biggest secret you were ever told and asked not to repeat?

I’m not falling for that one. Boy, never act with dogs, children or Elaine May.

Wow! I’m not telling you any secrets. I’m getting pretty close to a thousand words now. Do you have any good answers that you would like a question for?

I’m just grateful that the glitch in my server cleared up so we could establish some kind of rapport. Although I have to say it’s not entirely clear to me if you’re reading these answers and asking follow-up questions, or if you wrote all the questions out in advance because you didn’t really think my answers would be all that interesting.

Well, then, that’s it. Send it to Scott and tell his office what to leave out.

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ACTUAL QUESTION: “You have won several prizes for your play The Waverly Gallery and I’m told you turned down a chunk of money to do it as a musical. So what are you working on now?” Wow. That sounds interesting. How do you choose what to write about? Or do you just sit down and start typing? I thought so. You write about the human condition so naturally your plays are sad, and yet you, yourself, are hilarious. Why so gloomy in print? True enough. Is there an equivalent to feminism? Like guyism or manism? I’ve just been told that this interview is not two hundred words; it’s two thousand and five hundred words. Did you know that? Oh. Well, what does it matter. My questions are nothing special but your answers are riveting—colorful and personal and long. I mean it. You’re a wonderful raconteur. Tell me how you met Scott Rudin. What a great story. I never get tired of hearing it. Your parents were both psychoanalysts. But you know that. Has that made you more sensitive to, you know, people?
Elaine May Interviews Kenneth Lonergan