For the director David Cromer, New York has meant both ecstasy (Our Town, Adding Machine) and agony (Brighton Beach Memoirs). Now he’s back in Chicago, taking on A Streetcar Named Desire for his longtime collaborator Michael Halberstam, the cofounder of Writers’ Theatre. We spoke with the pair about the perils of Gotham City and of bringing Tennessee Williams’s seminal steam bath of madness, sex, and Southern discomfort to Glencoe.
David has got a reputation of being monstrously difficult to work with—
Halberstam: Challenging. Can we use the word “challenging”?
And the difference is?
Halberstam: “Difficult” implies self-indulgence. “Challenging” is about the work.
Cromer: Monstrous? Seriously?
Halberstam: For example, David’s Streetcar is challenging because we have to rearrange all the seats to accommodate his vision for the set. Which means we have to call many of our [5,300] subscribers and clear it with them. Subscribers get attached to their seats. It’s a main reason you subscribe. Making all those phone calls is a challenge.
Cromer: When I was younger, I didn’t know how to make my arguments without sounding like I was saying, ‘You’re a f—ing idiot’ to people who felt differently. But it is always about the work. When I get blasé, when I stop demanding what I know is right, something in me shrivels up and dies. Blasé is the water slide to hackdom.
Halberstam: We try to keep each other off the water slide to hackdom.
Cromer: Every show each one of us directs, we call each other in at some point. We need each other’s perspective. It’s not that we make any drastic changes. It’s about tiny tweaks. Sometimes you need to be reassured that, yes, this is working. That you don’t suck.
David’s Broadway directorial debut, Brighton Beach Memoirs: Critics agreed it didn’t suck, but it closed nine performances after it opened. What happened?
Cromer: The producers, the cast, me—we were happy with the play. It was a beautiful show that I was proud of. But I don’t think I formed a coherent sentence during the whole rehearsal process. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing as the director of a big commercial Broadway show. Next time, maybe I’ll be different. [Cromer’s latest New York show, When the Rain Stops Falling, opened in March at Lincoln Center Theater.]
David, you’ve said you couldn’t have survived living in New York as a younger man because you were too sad. But you’re living there now, after this terribly sad experience with your high-profile commercial debut.
Cromer: When I was younger, I never could have survived Brighton Beach. With depression, a strong wind can defeat you. But at this point, I’ve had a level of success in New York, with Our Town and Adding Machine. [Both shows won Obies.] New York is a gentler place when people like what you do.
So, other than moving the seats, what is your vision for Streetcar?
Cromer: It’s a clash between worlds. There’s the world of base desire, of sweat and vulgarity and cruelty and violence. And then there’s this other place that Blanche desperately wants to escape to, a place where there is only beauty and kindness. Those clashing worlds coexist in all of us. And they cause a lot of trouble.
GO: A Streetcar Named Desire runs May 4th through July 11th at Writers’ Theatre’s Tudor Court space, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe. For more info, call 847-242-6000 or go to writerstheatre.org.
Illustration: Daniel Zalkus