David Cromer, a recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, is a director and actor of extraordinary insight and empathy. His production several years ago of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which he directed and in which he himself at times played the Stage Manager, was transcendent. It won him an Obie Award for stripping the sentimentality from the play and then digging more deeply into the emotional and simple core at his radically theatrical heart.
Cromer got his start in the Chicago theatre – where, among many productions, he directed Angels in America Parts I and II, for which he won a Joseph Jefferson Award, and starred as Ned Weeks in The Normal Heart – but he has established roots in New York since that production of Our Town. He won the Tony last year as Best Director of a Musical for A Band’s Visit and currently is in Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery on Broadway directed by Lila Neugebauer. The cast of The Waverly Gallery also includes Lucas Hedges, Joan Allen, Michael Cera, and Elaine May, who portrays Gladys, the Greenwich Village doyenne of the family and the owner of the gallery of the title. Gladys is beginning to suffer a decline caused by dementia and Lonergan’s play delineates that decline scene-by-scene with the stealth of a stenographer grappling with a heartrending narrative.
Christopher Isherwood in his review in The New York Times of that production of Our Town back in 2009 wrote, “Mr. Cromer, who plays the central role of the Stage Manager, doesn’t seem to have an avuncular bone in his body.” But he’s never been the nephew type either. Is brotherly a better description of him? Maybe. Finally. I’ll let him explain.
DAVID CROMER:I am bad at these things.I have bad grammar.
KEVIN SESSUMS:But you’re a genius.
DC:Yeah, well, thank you, I guess.
KS:Maybe you’re just an idiot savant.
DC: That’s probably more like it.If there is any truth to the quality of the work, it’s definitely attributable to being an idiot savant.
KS:You’re enjoying The Waverly Gallery? What a cast …
DC:Very much.And everyone in the cast is very nice – which doesn’t necessarily make interesting copy.
KS:You’ve done so much theatre as both an actor and as a director, so does everyone being nice to each other necessarily mean a production is going to be good or interesting since there might be a lack of tension on the stage?
DC:I don’t think so.I have a pretty strong record of shows that I have directed in which everyone likes each other very much.I have never been able to see how – and I know that there are people who have seen it – that being uncomfortable with someone, having tension with someone, translates toevery night at 8 o’clock I’m going to go out and harness this on a moment-to-moment level.If I’m uncomfortable with you or I don’t trust you, I’m just uncomfortable with you and I don’t trust you.So when I’m onstage with you, I’m just thinking about how uncomfortable I am with you and how I don’t trust you.I have not had that experience that it adds to the work.But, yes, you always hear about that when you’re studying and you’re learning.I’m sure there are people for whom that works. You know, you hear they hated each other and they went out onstage and really took it out on each other in exciting ways.Maybe that works three or four times, but I’m not sure how long that can work. You always hear that Jerome Robbins kept the Jets and the Sharks at each other’s throats supposedly.I wish I had a slightly more sophisticated example.That just gives you an example of how highbrow my references are.
KS:Well, we are here because you’re in a Broadway play.The Waverly Gallery though is an atypical one in its documentary-like quality and its rather redundant narrative structure, the sadness of all its scenes as it burrows deeper and deeper into the sameness until we unexpectedly reach a different emotional destination than we were expecting – even as we reach the narrative one we knew all along that was coming because in some sense we are already there.
DC:It’s interesting you say documentary because the first thing I thought when I read it – and I mean this as a compliment – is that the play never starts (whatever the play was going to be) because we are just dealing with the illness.Every scene is this ongoing struggle – sometimes effectively, sometimes ineffectively – as we are hammering and chipping away at this problem.So the whole thing sort of is a documentary.
KS:Were you more drawn to being a part of this remarkable cast or the play itself?
DC:I don’t think I could separate them.I will say it was extraordinarily flattering to be asked to be in it.So I would say it that way.
KS:Did it help your self regard or does your self regard need any help?
DC:Oh, my self regard needs help.
KS:You just won a Tony for Best Director.
DC:They give them out every year, Kevin. Every year.
KS:You won a MacArthur Grant.
DC:Every year.And the money’s gone from the MacArthur. Are you still a genius if the money’s gone?
KS:Yes.Especially if the money’s gone.I’ve said that you have the career I have the fantasy of having as both an actor and a director.But when you are onstage as an actor how do you turn off that director part of you and surrender to someone else’s direction?
DC:I would say there is a blurry line. As an actor, you’re always planning and thinking about what you’re going to do.You keep giving yourself notes.But then there’s also the collaboration with the director.As for the question of how do I turn it off, I don’t think you turn it off. I think you use it.I think it is part of your critical faculties or your critical facilities or your critical tools necessary to build the thing.To make the thing.I don’t know because I have always kind of done both.Looking back, I would always direct the childhood games we were playing. The position exists because of behavioral patterns in people, not vice versa.
KS:Do you miss Chicago when you’re here, or do you think of yourself now as a New Yorker?
DC:That’s an interesting question. I miss the ease and comfort of Chicago.I miss the fact that I used to hang out with a lot more people when I was in Chicago.But I also think you hung out with more people when you were younger.And if you don’t get married and have kids, then you end up seeing your friends maybe twice a week instead of every day. I’m going back to Chicago to direct Next to Normal at my friend Michael Halberstam’s Writers Theatre in Glencoe.And then we’ve got to do The Band’s Visit’s tour.
KS:So how many people have a play or musical they directed running on Broadway while they are acting in a play or musical on Broadway at the same time?That’s a small club.
DC:I think Joe [Mantello] does it.He’s got about three running all the time.Harvey [Fierstein] does it.I say Joe and Harvey like we’re buddies and we’re not.“You know … Joe and Harvey …”Look, Im not pooh-poohing it.Everyone has their – well, I shouldn’t say everyone.I have my personal scorecard and when nobody’s looking, I pat myself onthe back and go, that’s kind of cool.David Yazbek [composer of The Band’s Visit] said that having a Broadway show is great because it gives you a place to shit in midtown.So I have two places I can shit in midtown.
KS:Let’s talk a bit about your transcendent production of Our Town, which I think is the greatest American play of the 20th Century.
DC:A brutal play.I would get accused – well, maybe I shouldn’t say accused.I would often have people say to me afterwards occasionally, “Well, you added lines, didn’t you.”I’d say, “No, we didn’t add any lines.”The lines they were responding to were the ones about the harsh stuff, the brutal stuff, such as wherever you come near the human race, there are layers and layers of nonsense.Or, “There are the stars – doing their old, old crisscross journeys in the sky. Scholars haven’t settled the matter yet, but they seem to think there are no living beings up there. Just chalk…or fire. Only this one is straining away, straining away all the time to make something of itself.The strain’s so bad that every sixteen hours everybody lies down and gets a rest.” Just the horror of it.There are the stage directions at the end that while the Stage Manager is saying that about our being alone in the universe George is sobbing on Emily’s grave. You read that and you think, “Well, that’s kind of harsh.You shouldn’t do that in a high school production.”
KS: You dropped out of high school.
DC: I have to amend that.I think I probably flunked out of high school.I just started ditching.And I would ditch on-campus because it was laid out so you could do that.I’d just go from cafeteria to cafeteria and hang out with my friends all day.Then we’d leave and go smoke pot or something. I went from being in honors classes to the remedial ones.Then I even stopped going to that.They tried to put me in night school.I was then in a show at school and as soon as the show was over I just stopped going to school.
KS:Why?What were you so mad about?Did it have to do with being gay?
DC:No, no, no.I was out and gay. I’d go into the city and go to see The Rocky Horror Show and for the sex and drugs and found all kind of acceptance there.I wasn’t mad.I’ve dealt with this a lot in therapy.I finally went to therapy because my brother died and I was mourning and didn’t understand how to deal with it.He had committed suicide.We were all trying to figure out what that was about.So I finally in my 50s …
KS:So this was recent?
DC.Yeah.Four years ago.I started working with a psychiatrist.My big thing is that I would go and say, “I’m so fucking lazy.So fucking lazy.”And he’d say, “So why are you lazy?”I’d go, well, I wouldn’t do this and a I wouldn’t do that.And he’d say, okay, here are some accomplishments.
KS:You certainly don’t seem lazy from an outside perspective.You seem quite able to multitask, in fact.
DC:Well, I can work hard at things I’m interested in, sure.But I can’t do justice to sort of how brilliantly my psychiatrist said this to me.I said, “I was such a dreadful student.I couldn’t learn anything.I couldn’t pay attention.I wouldn’t pay attention.I just refused. Why couldn’t I be a good student?”And he said, “Because you didn’t want to.”It was the first time someone had said that to me not as a criticism.He told me you just didn’t want to and that it didn’t interest you so why would you. I wouldn’t do anything differently.I would not turn back the time spent doing what I wanted in order to do a whole bunch of work I had no interest in doing and discipling myself to accomplish it.I would not turn the hours I spent doodling, staring out the window, masturbating all day – whatever it was – for figuring out math.So in my mind it was a positive thing.It was just a negative thing for everybody else. For my family.For conventional wisdom. But I didn’t know that it was okay.
KS:Are you saying that you have finally forgiven yourself?
DC:Hmmm .. ah … yes .. but it’s more like I didn’t want to go to school and that’s okay.And it turned out okay.My life turned out okay. If I were in a gutter somewhere having done what I had done, I might be thinking differently, but I’m not.I’m here eating a fancy salad.
KS:And you’re on Broadway and you have two places to shit.
DC:Who can say that?
DC:And Joe Mantello.
KS:Aaahhh .. the the-ah-tah.
DC: (Laughing) . Yeah.How’s your dog?
KS: He’s great.Thank God for Teddy.Do you have a pet?
KS:Do you have a boyfriend?
DC:No.Well, yeah.Sort of.Half-assedly.I thought I wanted it all my life.I don’t want any of it.I finally had two medium-length, really serious relationships with wonderful, wonderful, wonderful brilliant and exciting guys.I’m still very close with them.But now I’m… like … I don’t want anybody in my house. (Laughing). I don’t want anybody in my bed.I don’t want anyone bothering me.I want to be left the hell alone.That’s a new thing to know about myself.Because I had spent my life thinking I was pining for love.I wanted it so badly.
KS:So you’ve evolved.That seems to be the theme here: you’ve evolved recently to some sort of acceptance.
KS: Has success been a part of that or just a sidebar to it?
DC:Oh, I’m sure it a big help.I talked about that the other day in therapy.It would be very different if things were going badly. In fact, things were going badly when I started therapy.I did not know what to do with that kind of grief I was feeling when my brother committed suicide.No one knows what to do with that kind of grief.I just did not know what to do with the …ahhh … unchangeable horror of someone you love losing their will to live.
KS:So you were very close.
DC:No.We were not as adults.We were close as children.
KS:I used to not understand suicide at all.I used to be angry at people who did it.I thought it was a very aggressive and violent act toward those they left behind.But recently I have had to deal with some suicidal ideations myself because of financial struggles and other stuff.I have understood it in a different way.What is scary about it if one ever has the ideations – at least in my case – is how rational it is.It becomes a solution, a rational one.That frightened me.You don’t… well, I didn’t – feel as if I might be striking out at someone.
DC:I imagine they cannot see an end to the agony.
KS:It’s not even about agony at times.It’s just this weird rational voice that it will be okay because it is a solution.I know this is a hard way to think of it – and it’s a hard thing to say even – but if a person gets to the point of committing suicide, they find comfort in it somehow.So in some way your brother might have comforted himself by doing it. Does that sound awful?
DC:I think he might have.And I sort of respect his choice.But here’s the thing.If we say that and you print that and somebody reads it and says, “Oh my God, what a great idea.You’re right …”And then they kill themselves.
KS:I can’t be responsible for someone else’s actions in that regard.I am just trying to understand the act itself.And I’m only speaking for myself.I understand it as a narrative as a writer and as a person who has had the ideations.The way I think and see the world is always through narrative.
DC:I look at everything that way too because I’m a director.I think of what did this person do and why did they do it.How do we understand the circumstances leading up to this action?
KS: We are sitting here today on November 16th.My mother died on this date 54 years ago.
DC:I read that post you put up on Facebook about it.And here we are talking about grief.
KS:I’ve lived with it my whole life and you’ll live with your brother’s suicide the rest ofyours.It is now a part of your life.
DC:And maybe someday we’ll forget about it – if we’re Gladys.We’ll also all die too even if we live beautifully and healthily until we’re 99 years old and we die in our sleep, which is what I’m still hoping for.
KS: The last lines of The Waverly Gallery – delivered so simply by Lucas as Daniel – are a kind of grace note not only to what has transpired in the play but for anyone who has struggled with addiction for suicidal ideation or diseases other than Alzheimers. We all bring our own stories to the theatre and the story being enacted on the stage. Those last lines of The Waverly Gallery struck at my heart.
DC:I listen to it every night: “It’s not true that if you try hard enough you’ll prevail in the end.Because so many people try so hard and they don’t prevail.But they try anyway.And they love each other so much.It makes you think it must be worth a lot to be alive.”