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Forward 50 2018

Elaine May

American Comedy’s Insurgent Genius And Jewish Mother

What ties together “The Birdcage,” a mid-90s comedy about the clash between a gay couple and their conservative soon-to-be in-laws, “Labyrinth,” a terrifyingly weird children’s movie about a magical David Bowie, and “The Graduate”?

Why, it’s Elaine May, who wrote the former two and made a fleeting cameo in the latter. May, an actress, writer and director has been lighting up the American comedy scene since the 1950s, when she debuted in a comedy duo with Mike Nichols, an act that Dick Cavett described as “one of the comic meteors in the sky.”

This fall, the 86-year-old May is appearing on Broadway in a more sober setting. Starring in Kenneth Lonergan’s play “The Waverly Gallery,” she continues to bring both pathos and humor to the role of a grandmother afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease. May won rave reviews for her take on the role; her first appearance on Broadway in 50 years, it also prompted reflections on her enormous influence on American culture.

“I don’t think it’s possible to overstate her influence on funny women,” the film critic Mark Harris told Carrie Rickey for the Forward in September. “That influence has been passed down the generations, to the point where there are comedians and comic writer/performers who probably don’t even know that she is in their DNA.”

Or, as Rickey wrote, May “has been American comedy’s insurgent genius as well as its Jewish mother.”

— Talya Zax

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