“I think we’re shaped by really silly things,” begins David Cromer, the Chicago-based director of last year’s unlikely Off-Broadway hit, a musical of Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine
, whose take on Thornton Wilder’s classic Our Town
is now playing at the Barrow Street Playhouse. “Things you watched on television when you were a kid show up later. When I was a kid, any movie in black-and-white was good, even B movies—if it was in black-and-white, I’d watch it. There was something moving about it. Maybe I felt my world was little too bright.”
As a theatre director, then, Cromer has found himself inexorably drawn to a distinctly mid-century milieu.
“One time in the 1990s, I realized that everything I directed that year took place in 1936, whether it was written then or not,” Cromer recalls. “I directed Golden Boy
, Dancing at Lughnasa
, Of Mice and Men
and Neal Bell’s On the Bum
What is it about that period that seems to attract him? “It was a defining time for America. The country seemed—I don’t want to say warmer, but I might be drawn to a time when people seemed to be rallying a little harder, when they had a we’re-all-in-this-together mentality.” This taste, Cromer jokes, makes him “recalcitrantly unhip.”
Of course, just as fashions eventually return, so do economics and politics.
“That was a time when we as a nation got confident, and then our confidence was knocked down,” Cromer says. “I’m not even stating relevance, just the fact: That’s just happened to us again.”
Whether in the relentlessly bleak view of The Adding Machine
or the relatively more upbeat Americana Wilder’s Our Town
, writers of the earlier were also less likely to put everything in ironic air quotes.
“People were writing in that era with their hearts on their sleeves,” Cromer says. “They veered wildly between cynicism and hope; all those things were allowed.”
Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning classic is partly famous for its intentionally stripped-down aesthetic: no sets or props, just some tables and ladders and lots of mime. The onstage narrator is called the Stage Manager, as if he’s conjuring the narrative himself; Cromer himself plays the Stage Manager in his version.
But even this stripped-down aesthetic, so iconoclastic in its day, may require further stripping.
“My job is to look at the play, and say, Why is this here?” Cromer explains. “What was innovative in 1938 has become common vocabulary because, so you kind of want to reboot these conventions.”
Cromer started with the script’s first words: “No curtain, no scenery.” The director’s question, then, according to Cromer, is, “Why no set? Because a set’s a fantasy; it suggests a location that’s not really there. And if you don’t have a set it says, ‘We’re in the theatre.’ So the more artifice you strip out of this play—the New England accents, the costumes—the more you take out stuff that would create illusion, the more you clear the way for the conversations in this play, which are very simple but very packed.”
The bottom line about Cromer’s bare-bones take: “There’s less crap to look at, fewer things saying ‘fakey’ and fewer things saying, ‘This is significant.’ ”
This approach also explains why Cromer cast himself as the Stage Manager.
“The thought process there was that if we’re stripping away all the artifice, I felt like it felt artificial to hire an actor,” Cromer says. “I also really felt I would have a lot of trouble convincing an actor to approach the Stage Manager the way I wanted it done; it was just easier to do it myself.”
Cromer, himself an actor, admits to yeto another reason for the casting: “I have an actor’s ego, and it’s a part I always wanted to approach. I came close to playing it a few times for other directors, so when this came up, I decided it was time.”
Like those old films that helped to shape his aesthetic, the two definitive productions of Our Town
Cromer has seen came through the television screen.
“I randomly saw the Hal Holbrook Our Town
on TV, and I remember loving the mime and the spareness of it—people eating without plates or food,” Cromer says. “You weren’t used to seeing that on TV, and it made a big impression on me.”
Years later he saw the famous 1989 production on PBS with acerbic storyteller Spalding Gray in the Stage Manager role.
“That was completely revelatory to me,” Cromer says. “Spalding played the part without warmth. Here was a monologuist with this bizarre, fascinating relationship with the audience, and he spoke to them in a way that was a little bit different from the world of the play.”
Apart from stealing “liberally” from Gray’s removed approach (“You gotta steal from the greats,” Cromer jokes), the Chicago-based director also derived the central conceit of his interpretation from this latter-day Our Town
“The three planes of reality in the play are the audience, the Stage Manager and the play,” Cromer says, adding what could be the job description of a good director, particularly one casting a fresh eye a well-worn classic: “The Stage Manager is a kind of bridge between the reality of the audience and the non-literal reality of the play. There needed to be a third reality; I am that third reality.”
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