In a film and television career that spans 20 of his 30 years, Michael Cera has shared the screen with charismatic leading ladies Emma Stone (Superbad), Jessica Walter (Arrested Development), Jessica Chastain (Molly’s Game), and many others. But no potential costar excited him more than Elaine May, the legendary actress, writer, and director who headlines the forthcoming Broadway revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery. Cera joins May, Academy Award nominee Lucas Hedges, and Tony Award winners Joan Allen and David Cromer in a limited engagement of this witty and moving Pulitzer Prize finalist, which begins performances September 25 at the Golden Theatre.
“As soon as I heard that Elaine was doing the production, I begged to be part of it,” says Cera, speaking with Broadway Direct after a rehearsal. Fortunately, the Canadian-born actor feels perfectly at ease with Lonergan’s finely crafted dialogue: He received a 2018 Tony Award nomination for playing a misbegotten security guard in the recent Broadway revival of Lobby Hero and won raves for his performance as a good-natured stoner in the 2014 Broadway revival of This Is Our Youth. “If I was not part of this show, I would be very jealous of anyone who got to share the stage with Elaine May,” he says. “I can’t tell you how surreal it is to be doing scenes with her!”
In a memory play that has been compared to The Glass Menagerie, May portrays Gladys Green, a former lawyer and activist who runs a small art gallery on Waverly Place in Greenwich Village in 1989. At 85, Gladys is hard of hearing and fighting an increasingly frustrating battle with Alzheimer’s disease, but she remains the feisty, funny matriarch of a family that includes her middle-aged daughter (Allen) and son-in-law (Cromer), and her grandson (Hedges, an Oscar nominee for Lonergan’s 2016 drama Manchester by the Sea). Cera plays the outsider of the piece as Don Bowman, a sweetly naive young artist from New England whose work catches Gladys’s eye.
“I become a surrogate caretaker and help to the family,” the actor explains. “It’s a symbiotic relationship because [Gladys] is the only person who has ever validated me as a painter, and I end up living in a closet in the back of the gallery.” Although Don is one of the smallest roles in the play, Cera laughingly observes, “Elaine has pointed out that every time I’m not in a scene, her character is talking about me, so I’m definitely on her mind.”
As in This Is Our Youth and Lobby Hero, Cera brings expert comic timing to his portrayal of a quirky yet endearing character. Musing on the gift of appearing in the Broadway premieres of three Lonergan plays, he says, “They’re gratifying pieces to perform in an extended way. They’re all different, but they have the same beating heart, the same kind of humanism. Kenny’s characters are so rich; they feel like real people just waiting to be discovered, and you keep finding the depths of them through the run.” He pauses. “It’s clear how personal and autobiographical this piece is among Kenny’s plays, which makes it that much more affecting.”
At the center of The Waverly Gallery is Gladys, a character tailor-made for the 86-year-old May’s towering talent, and Cera expresses awe at her ability to tackle the script’s intricate, overlapping dialogue. “Because my part is smaller, I’ve gotten to watch the play come together in rehearsal, which has been really beautiful,” he says. “Elaine is very smart, very funny, very sweet, and very dedicated to the work. I hope to be half as energetic and brave and present at that age as she is.”
The desire to tackle great writing spurred Cera’s career expansion from screen to stage. After making his theatrical debut in a 2012 mounting of This Is Our Youth at Australia’s Sydney Opera House, he found he enjoyed the daily discipline of acting for a live audience. “It keeps you sharp,” he says. “You get to experiment and learn, and you’re more in charge of your work than in a movie, where half of your performance is in someone else’s hands.”
On a more personal level, Cera embraces the stability that comes with settling in for an 18-week-long Broadway run. “Acting is such an unusual kind of freelance work,” he says of a career that began with commercials and children’s TV shows in his native Ontario. “You can’t count on knowing what’s around the corner, so when you get to work on an amazing piece of material every day, it feels great.”
The fact that all three of Cera’s Broadway shows have been written by someone he deeply admires makes the experience even more meaningful. “Working with Kenny in a personal way is such an enriching and educational and fun experience,” he says of Lonergan, a quiet presence at rehearsal alongside director Lila Neugebauer. “He’s an endless spring of information and color and depth, and yet his writing allows you to tap into your own experiences and apply that to the work.”
In The Waverly Gallery, a play New York Times critic Ben Brantley hailed as “both painful and hilarious,” Lonergan crafted a story that speaks to multiple generations. “You feel like you’re watching this personal struggle happen in front of you,” says Cera, “and the resilience of the family and the humor with which they deal with this impossible situation is really moving and resonating. And it’s a great, great vehicle for Elaine. Seeing her play this role is going to be an event.”