Everybody Loves Bruce Norris

FROM JULY 2006: Except Bruce Norris. The playwright’s growing notoriety as a social satirist is surpassing his success as an actor, and Chicago’s top directors value him as an original mind and an excellent dinner companion. But nothing saves him (or the rest of us) from his contempt

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I’ve said to him many times that he is never so eloquent as when he’s describing something he despises.”
–Helen, a character in Bruce Norris’s The Infidel

Illustration by Joseph Adolphe
“I want to depict everyone as slightly ridiculous,” Norris says, “but that’s because I think I’m hugely ridiculous.”

For a man accused of endangering the mental well-being of six-year-olds, Bruce Norris is astonishingly popular. His colleagues in the theatre admire him. The Joseph Jefferson Awards Committee has honored him. Critics respect him. Even the one woman in the world with an airtight case for hating him—the stage auteur Mary Zimmerman—loves him. More than one person I talked to called him a genius. Three, in fact. And the actress Laurie Metcalf allows as how “he’s a critter, all right.”

“I think Bruce is the goods,” says Martha Lavey, the artistic director of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Norris’s great professional patron. Sara Garonzik, the producing artistic director of the Philadelphia Theatre Company, calls him “one of the most original voices writing in American theatre today.”

The only outright detractor I encountered was Norris himself.

A performing-arts polymath whose acting credits range from Broadway to the role of the stressed-out, stuttering teacher in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, Bruce Norris badmouths Bruce Norris—often savagely and in public—every chance he gets.

And yet it would not necessarily be right to consider that proof of self-loathing. Because, in fact, Norris stands ready to badmouth practically anybody and anything—especially if, like him, it smacks of bourgeois hypocrisy. “I want to depict everyone as slightly ridiculous, but that’s because I think I’m hugely ridiculous,” he declares with characteristically wry charm, his voice and manner suggesting a Wasp Woody Allen. Given that we are all swine—and cannot really help being swine—the only morally valid response is to acknowledge it. So he does.

At 46, Norris’s growing notoriety as a brilliant, remorseless social satirist is well on its way to superseding his established success as an actor. In five plays written and produced since 1999 (including The Unmentionables, scheduled to première at Steppenwolf on June 29th with a cast that features Ora Jones, John Mahoney, Laurie Metcalf, and Amy Morton), Norris has established a reputation for bloodletting with a smile and a classical sense of dramatic structure.

That reputation took both a leap and a beating last summer with Steppenwolf’s première production of The Pain and the Itch, Norris’s pitch-black farce about an upper-middle-class politically liberal family with an ugly secret that will not stay hidden. Their panicked attempts to ignore the obvious result in (a) mayhem and (b) a chain of events that lead, absurdly but inevitably, to the death of an innocent. The charge of messing with six-year-old psyches stems from casting two little girls in this show who alternated playing four-year-old Kayla, the daughter of the family. Not only were the child actors expected to participate in the hysteric vulgarity of a breathtakingly dysfunctional household but they also had to physicalize Kayla’s mysterious, dramatically significant genital rash-i.e., scratch their crotches a lot.

Chris Jones, the theatre critic for the Chicago Tribune, took exception. “There’s something cheap about using a child as merely some kind of victimized vessel for adult failings,” Jones wrote in a Sunday commentary. “I could not watch . . . any of the scenes involving this child-without my head popping out of the play and into the world of the little actress. What did she know? What did she feel? What was she told?”

Fair-minded to the point of diffidence, Jones’s essay was followed five days later by a ham-handed Chicago Sun-Times piece on the same subject. Under the headline “Child acting or abuse?” the reporter Misha Davenport named the little girls (which Jones had refrained from doing) and, while quoting only one theatregoer, claimed that “some” had objected to Steppenwolf’s handling of the children.

Something bad hit the fan. Jones told me that after the Sun-Times story appeared, the mother of one of the Kaylas “called up very upset. I remember her saying to me, ‘You Google my daughter’s name and you get “child abuse.” How do I erase that?’” The play’s director, Anna D. Shapiro, was hit hard as well. “I didn’t like what I was being accused of,” she says. “I have six nieces and nephews who are the most important people in the world to me, and I did not have a thick skin about that.”

Norris, meanwhile, was annoyed that the controversy he had hoped to incite had misfired. Very much like the family in The Pain and the Itch, he felt, people were using a specious issue—child protection—to avoid dealing with the real one: “Is something about the way we’re living problematic?” When the Jeff Committee gave The Pain and the Itch an award for best new work of the 2004-5 season, Norris began his acceptance speech with a jab. “You know, normally when you abuse little girls you do prison time,” he said, laying his trophy on the lectern. “So this is much better.”