Eileen Heckart and Josh Hamiltonin Kenneth Lonergan's The Waverly Gallery.
Eileen Heckart and Josh Hamilton
in Kenneth Lonergan's The Waverly Gallery.
The day before the opening night (March 22) of Kenneth Lonergan's The Waverly Gallery dawns with a grayish overcast, and the playwright is at home with a cold, so we chat by phone about the relationship between his latest show and his life.

"This play really is about my grandmother and my family, and I've been working on it for awhile now," Lonergan says. "So I'm used to it being a play every night and not just my family history. It's been a little cathartic, and also a little painful. It's painful to tell the truth that you weren't always as nice or didn't do as much as you think you should have. But my family's seen the play and they're all fine with it."

Lonergan's all-too-human comedy/drama presents three generations of a late 20th-century extended (but very close) New York family. There's Daniel, the son and narrator (Josh Hamilton, who also appeared in Lonergan's first hit play, This Is Our Youth), standing in for the author; Gladys, his grandmother (Eileen Heckart); Ellen, his mom (Maureen Anderman) and her second husband, Howard (Mark Blum); plus a young artist named Don (Adam Arkin), who becomes Gladys' companion. Each member of the ensemble is superb, but it's stage and screen vet Heckart's grandmother who dominates the stage and steals your heart with her stunning performance of a once vital woman succumbing to Alzheimer's disease. This is truly one of those sublime marriages of actor and role that audiences dream of seeing. (Heckart even lent the producers a perfect photo from her family album for the Playbill cover.)

"My grandmother really did run a gallery at the corner of MacDougal and Waverly, and it was a viable place for a long time," says the author. "When we started casting the play, we knew that this was the toughest role and we needed someone truly great. Eileen's name came up early, we sent her a script, and she said yes right away. Scotty Bloch [who plays the grandmother at matinees] gives a very different, equally wonderful performance." In the play, Gladys invites young Don--who doesn't have a New York apartment--to set up a cot for himself in a back room of the gallery; Lonergan says of his grandmother, "She liked to help young people, and she did have artists-in-residence. The character of Don is based on the last one."

Directed by Scott Ellis (The Rainmaker), this memory play was a hit at last summer's Williamstown Festival, and it comes to town with the director and original cast intact (minus one character, dropped during rewrites). The action is naturalistic, with lots of fast and funny, yet poignant, overlapping dialogue. But Daniel continually breaks the fourth wall. "He's trying to remember as many aspects of this big, terrible thing in his life as he can, because he doesn't know what else to do with it," the playwright explains. "It plays so differently at the Promenade, because it's a much bigger theater. In fact, it's the biggest theater I've ever had a play in, by a factor of two times at least. My experience has been primarily with small theaters, and I frankly prefer them. The stage at Williamstown was much smaller--and, while the subject of the play is large, the scale is minute."

Smaller certainly doesn't describe Lonergan's burgeoning career over the last year and a half. His play This Is Our Youth garnered raves Off-Broadway. His first screenplay, Analyze This, was a major hit for Warner Brothers. And then Lonergan won two Awards at Sundance 2000 in January--the Grand Jury Prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award--for You Can Count on Me, which marks his writing/directing debut.

"I had directed a few one-acts at Naked Angels, and a lot of what I learned about writing came in handy while I was editing," he remarks. Shot in just 30 days last June, You Can Count on Me features a stellar cast including Matthew Broderick (about to open on Broadway in Taller Than A Dwarf), Laura Linney (currently in rehearsal for the Roundabout's Uncle Vanya), Mark Ruffalo (a co-star of Lonergan's first hit, This Is Our Youth, and Tom Fontana's new TV cop show, The Beat) and Lonergan's girlfriend, J. Smith-Cameron (Fuddy Meers). The writer/director, who also acted a bit with Naked Angels, himself plays the small but pivotal role of a priest; the film is scheduled for release this fall.

But wait--there's more. Lonergan has scripted the upcoming Universal Pictures' mega-production of Rocky and Bullwinkle starring Robert DeNiro, and he plans to write and direct a film version of This is Our Youth. He says he has an idea for another film, but hasn't written that one yet. First and foremost, he's got to get rid of that nasty cold before The Waverly Gallery opens.