Small World

Lonergan's laughs

“Life does seem to be laced with humor, even when it’s not going too well.”

Kenneth Lonergan knows whereof he speaks. As a writer, he has a singular ear for the sound of human comedy—and the drama of everyday life with which it seems to be wrestling. It’s that sensibility, among others, that won him an Oscar nomination for his original screenplay You Can Count on Me (which he also directed) and that distinguishes The Waverly Gallery, this week’s Empty Space production about one woman’s encroaching senility that marks the first Seattle staging of a Lonergan script.

Other persistent concerns in his work are apparent, and Lonergan, who speaks with the same dry, subtle contemplation he used in his role as the town priest in You Can Count on Me, sees them, too.

“I think I tend to frequently write about people’s self-limitations,” he says. “And I guess there’s a certain idea [that] in the face of what’s otherwise a disaster, people kind of retain the capacity to cling to each other for support and comfort and love—not to be too mushy about it.”

The thing about Lonergan is he isn’t too mushy about it. His stories can move you without any great sentiment, touching you more through his skill in depicting the oddly comic way screwed-up people—which is, of course, to say most people—tend to reach out to other screwed-up people to make it through screwed-up situations. The idea that The Waverly Gallery looks into an aging woman’s fading mind may strike an outsider as decidedly unfunny, but Lonergan has located the humor in the frustration of the heroine and her family and knows how that humor and frustration mesh.

“I don’t usually find that humor and drama are antithetical to each other,” he says. “There are certain lengths you won’t go in the humor department, because there are certain kinds of jokes that are based on a stretching of reality that you don’t want in your play. So it’s more like what are the perimeters of imagined reality in what you’re working on.”

Not that everything in life is a worth a guffaw.

“I think there are certain situations where there’s nothing funny happening,” he says. “Like, [my wife and I] had this baby two weeks ago, and I was making jokes all the way up until the actual pushing . . . and there’s just nothing funny about that. My wife, too, was making jokes, and when the actual pushing part came, that was so intense there were just no jokes to be had.”

He laughs anyway.