David Cromer

Photo: Daniel Shea

Cromer on the High Line in New York

The hour is closer to dinnertime than brunch, but it is Sunday. So David Cromer is serving postrehearsal mimosas. His stage managers scurry off, locking the rehearsal room door behind them, leaving us to sip from plastic cups on stage furniture arranged to suggest a living room. The set includes a full bar, but alas, the bottles are useless for impromptu day drinking. “Empty,” Cromer informs me.

More than any real address, it is the makeshift conviviality of the stage—even if that stage is in a studio on the fifth floor of a corporate office building in Manhattan—that feels like home for Cromer. The 49-year-old may be a long way from Chicago—he grew up in suburban Skokie and worked for years in the city as a freelance director and sometime actor—but it was a local production that wrote his ticket to New York success. He reconstituted his revelatory close-to-the-bone revival of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, produced by the Hypocrites in 2008, as an Off Broadway hit and quickly became an in-demand New York director. In 2010, Cromer won a MacArthur “genius” grant.

At the moment, he’s shepherding a domestic comedy—Ethan Coen’s play Women or Nothing—for the Atlantic Theater Company, the Off Broadway outfit founded by David Mamet and William H. Macy. But after it opens, he’ll head back to Chicago, as he’s done sporadically since moving to New York four years ago. This time, it will be an uncommonly long visit—he’s not the director but the star of TimeLine Theatre’s The Normal Heart, a revival of Larry Kramer’s 1985 cri de couer about the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic.

“I don’t know if I say, like, ‘Oh, I must go back to my home,’ but I guess I must—I guess I must,” Cromer says, with what seems a signature mix of confidence and equivocation. In the past few years, he’s been back to his theatrical hometown for Mary-Arrchie’s Cherrywood, Writers Theatre’s A Streetcar Named Desire, American Theater Company’s Rent, and, most recently, Sweet Bird of Youth, his long-overdue directing debut at the Goodman last fall. And he thinks he knows what his old chums are saying behind his back, based on what he used to think when other local heroes made it big in New York: “I was like, Good for you, you son of a bitch—who do you think you are?”

Actually, says Nick Bowling, who’ll direct Cromer in The Normal Heart, Cromer’s reputation in Chicago is “as kind of a crazy perfectionist who can be incredibly difficult, but everyone knows it’s going to be worth it. The tough part about working in the theatre is that there comes a point as a director where you just have to cut your losses and capitulate; David doesn’t capitulate.”

That uncompromising spirit would seem to align Cromer with Ned Weeks, Kramer’s semiautobiographical protagonist, a gay activist who spends the play raging against the indifference of the government to the burgeoning AIDS crisis and against those he considers insufficiently committed to their own survival. Documenting a scary and uncertain time, the play about the gay rights movement’s baptism by fire has lost none of its prescient power—as evidenced by an acclaimed 2011 revival on Broadway.

Bowling had initially asked Cromer to direct the show; playing Ned was Cromer’s idea. “I want to be very careful—I will never make any claim to have had anything resembling the courage, the dedication outside of self, that Larry Kramer and the people who fought that fight had,” says Cromer. “But I have access to things in the role: I’m a gay man, I had a very strong sexual appetite, and I did not feel very good about the way I looked.”

Northlight’s 1986 production of the play, directed by Eric Simonson, transfixed Cromer (“It’s one of the only times I’ve leapt to my feet at the end of a show,” he says) and not least because he was coming of age himself during the plague years. The formative fears of that time can still surface: Cromer says that while getting tested for HIV some years ago, he started to “wig out” until a clinic counselor close to his own age put things in perspective. “He said, ‘It’s our generation; we’re just scared, and we’ll never not be scared.’ The monster can’t be defanged for us.”

It is in part to ward off such terrors that Cromer, like many theatre artists, creates a feeling of security, of family, around his work. Scott Morfee, a producer who’s been bringing Cromer’s work to New York off and on since 2005, says that “all his casts are very social with each other, with a sense that it’s always going to be more fun the more they can be together.”

That demonstrably wasn’t the case with Cromer’s infamous Neil Simon revivals on Broadway in 2009: The well-reviewed but sparsely attended Brighton Beach Memoirs closed after a week, and the slated Broadway Bound never opened. That bruising experience reportedly put him at odds with Laurie Metcalf, the television actress and Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member.

Though he declines to be specific about the rift, Cromer explains: “I had a very volatile experience with certain members of the cast. I realized that because I didn’t have a full plan, because I was willing to come into the room and screw around, they decided I didn’t have any plan and that I was an idiot. I did have a plan, and I don’t think I’m an idiot. So I’ve started going into rehearsals now trying to say, ‘I do not have all the answers, and I would be a liar if I pretended I did, and so I will not lie to you, because you will catch me and it will be worse.’ ”

Now strolling with me at dusk through New York’s former meatpacking district, where an abandoned elevated train track has been converted into a lush pedestrian parkway called the High Line, Cromer confesses, almost sheepishly, his affection for his adopted city. He concedes that what may have struck some Chicago colleagues as needling perfectionism is more welcome in the combative commercial environment of New York. “People here are more used to the director wanting things and not taking no for an answer,” he says.

But Cromer clearly doesn’t want to lose touch with the virtues of the theatrical work ethic that shaped him. “In Chicago, there’s always been an idea that everyone is going to work very, very hard—we’re gonna bust our asses, there will be a lot of yelling and screaming and crying in order to do the play,” he says. “But there is not money and fame at stake in the very nasty way that there is in cities where theatre is more of a for-profit industry, like in New York or Los Angeles. It’s just a warmer and more rewarding process.”

Where to see him next: Cromer stars in TimeLine Theatre’s production of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, Oct. 26 to Dec. 22. Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.


More in Fall Previews:
Comedy: Nick Offerman | Art: Insiders’ Guide | Art: Michelle Grabner
Theatre: Insiders’ Guide | Theatre: David Cromer | Music: Insiders’ Guide
Music: Numero Group | Music: Top 10 Shows | Classics: Blue-Chip Artists