Director David Cromer goes from Off Broadway to Our Town.
If there’s one thing David Cromer hates, it’s talking about himself. Or talking, period. He often pauses for several seconds looking for the right word and then, hearing himself, wheels back around. “The trouble you’re going to have,” he warns me about making sense of our interview, “is sentences sound slightly interesting part-way through, but you’ll find the end of the sentence doesn’t match the beginning of the sentence. So good luck to ya.”
The droll director needn’t be so reticent. The 43-year-old Skokie native’s body of work includes some of the most talked-about Chicago theater of the last two decades: the Steppenwolf premiere, in 2000, of Austin Pendleton’s Orson’s Shadow, which he subsequently directed all over the country; the two-part epic Cider House Rules, codirected with Marc Grapey for Famous Door in 2003; and the Journeymen’s 1998 Chicago debut of Angels in America, in which he also played Louis.
As a director, Cromer has a flair for heightened reality, often in material that wouldn’t seem to call for it. It’s a gift that’s most recently been on display in Adding Machine, the Joshua Schmidt–Jason Loewith musical adaptation of Elmer Rice’s Expressionist classic that debuted at Next Theatre last spring. Cromer’s production, nearly intact from its Evanston run, is now playing Off Broadway to ecstatic reviews; it recently racked up six nominations for Off Broadway’s Lucille Lortel Awards, including one for Cromer.
Ironically, those Expressionist instincts nearly ended his directing career before it began. Cromer’s first time at the helm was in a Directing I class at Columbia College, where he was studying acting. “I directed the scene between the young hack and his girl from Waiting for Lefty. I spent all semester on it,” he recalls. “I did a lot of bullshitty directing stuff to it. I had this beam of light, and I did this stupid kind of misdirection thing where she sits in the light while he does this huge monologue outside the light.… I’m the only person who’s ever gotten savaged in a Directing I scene. They went after me like they were really mad,” Cromer says with a laugh. It would be several years before he tried his hand at directing again. (He now teaches that class at Columbia.)
“Adding Machine is a large extension of that scene,” he muses. “Almost every show there’s a point where I go, This just goes back to that Waiting for Lefty scene. I suddenly get rewarded for it. So stick it out, kids!”
While Adding Machine plays on in New York and the company waits to see how many Lortels it will take home on May 5, Cromer makes his triumphant return to Chicago by directing himself in the role of the stage manager in Our Town. In a basement.
“The short answer is, They asked,” he says of the Hypocrites production of the Thornton Wilder classic opening this week. “The idea that there’s some inundation of amazing jobs and they’re knocking down the door is not exactly true. My season is booking up, but not any faster or more successfully than it ever does.”
That typically eclectic season includes a return to Writers’ Theatre this fall, directing Grapey in Picnic; Cromer also will direct a regional premiere of Aaron Sorkin’s The Farnsworth Invention, which debuted earlier this season on Broadway, for Houston’s Alley Theatre. But Cromer is uncommonly candid about approaching regional work: “Farnsworth is a Broadway play that’s going out into the regionals. You’re gonna sort of second-string everything doing regional productions of plays that are ending instead of beginning.”
Endings and beginnings are, of course, what Our Town is all about. Wilder’s classic follows small-town sweethearts George and Emily, along with their neighbors, from childhood to marriage to death and beyond; the play emphasizes the importance of savoring the moment. “It’s always about the struggle between being exactly where you are and having context for exactly where you are. That’s constant,” says Cromer.
“It yields something new every time,” he says of the play. “It just won’t stop getting better. It is nearly actor-proof and director-proof.” And then he hears what he just said. “Oh man, I don’t even want to think about how that’s going to bite me in the ass.”
Our Town opens Sunday 27 at the Chopin Theatre.