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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“What an astonishing volume of horseshit people expect you to swallow. Do you know what I mean? What a staggering, towering load of pure unreconstituted crap.”
–Purdy, a character in Norris’s Purple Heart

Bruce Norris comes from Houston, where his family attended the same Episcopal church as George H. W. Bush. He discarded his Lone Star accent in junior high, he says, because he was “ashamed to be from Texas.” The middle child between his younger sister, Jana, who grew up to be a veterinarian, and his older brother, John, a news correspondent for MTV, Bruce discovered the theatre at about the same time as he dropped his twang. “I’m extraordinarily lazy by nature and it’s a lazy person’s job and so I totally gravitated,” he says. “I liked everything about the theatre. The first time I ever made out was in a carpool for a production of The Sound of Music. I made out with one of the other von Trapp children.”

Norris’s mother—Margaret Jane Tatum Norris, known to her friends as Jane—"wanted to be an artist but gave it up to have kids,” Norris remembers. “She encouraged dissent and subversion at every turn. She wanted us to be expressive and questioning rather than obedient, and she was also very unhappy and basically drank and smoked herself into an early grave.”

His father, John Edward, an internist, became a “born-again, serious Christian” after Jane’s death in 1987. “Before her death,” Bruce offers, “he was just an average run-of-the-mill control freak.” Needless to say, he wasn’t any too enthusiastic about Bruce’s love of the theatre.

And apparently he still isn’t. At a recent family gathering for père Norris’s 80th birthday, Bruce says, “my father told me he felt I was writing plays that harm society. I didn’t really have an answer. You’re shocked when your father tells you that you’re hurting the world. It’s a very tough relationship. I try to decode his condemnations of me. I try to decode them as concern. He has told me on many, many occasions that I’m going to hell. I assume that means, ‘Take care of yourself.’ I don’t have much evidence to support that position, but I’m trying to optimistically think of him as concerned.”

Damnation notwithstanding, Norris acted, sang, and danced his way through adolescence, working professionally on the local stage and in television. From high school he went to Boston University, where he studied scenic design, then transferred to Northwestern University.

Photograph: Louis Lanzano/
Associated Press

Mary Zimmerman in New York for The Metamorphoses

Which is where he met Mary Zimmerman.

“I remember what I call the first moment I saw him, although I’d known him for a year,” says Zimmerman, the Tony Award–winning adapter and director whose own brilliance has been authenticated by a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. “I was waiting to rehearse with him and he came around the corner—it was a very windy day—and he kind of turned to face the wind, turned into profile, and I just felt like I was in a falling elevator. . . .

“He was always the most vivid personality, always the funniest person, the most charming, the most handsome. He dated everyone. Julia Louis-Dreyfus was one of his girlfriends, and I had a deep desire not to get in line.”

Instead, Zimmerman “schemingly” invited him to take a room in the big apartment she was renting with some other students. “And then, during the course of the next few weeks or months,” she recalls, “we became boyfriend and girlfriend.” They were 19 at the time; they would stay together for the next 16 years.

Norris will not talk about the circumstances of his breakup with Zimmerman—in part, I suspect, because they are so embarrassingly banal. Zimmerman, however, is blunt. “He had an affair with someone I knew very well,” she tells me. “And they had it for three years and lied to me about it for three years.”

Zimmerman goes on to describe the “colossally damaging” consequences of this betrayal, her voice shaking at times, although a decade has passed. But then she ends up with something genuinely unexpected. Something that suggests the uncanny loyalty, delight, even sense of destiny that surround Norris for all that he badmouths the world and himself: “I think we fell in love over talk, and that really never stopped and hasn’t stopped to this day. We still talk three, four times a week. In fact, the proudest accomplishment of my life by far"—says the woman who made her adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses a hit on Broadway-"is that I’m friends with Bruce. That may sound doormatty, but we are a comfort in each other’s lives.”