Our Town
The Hypocrites

Highly Recommended - Chicago Sun Times; After Dark Award, Direction - David Cromer; After Dark Award, Outstanding Performance - Jennifer Grace

"..By night he was playing the Stage Manager in his freshly reimagined production of “Our Town,” a smash for the Hypocrites...which returned for an encore run this fall at the enchantingly funky Chopin Theater in the Wicker Park neighborhood" - Charles Isherwood, New York Times 11/7/08
Cromer, Graney and Berry: Fall is a tale of 3 hot directors - - Chicago Tribune 10/17/08
Critic's Pick - TimeOut Chicago 10/2/08
"Oddly enough, a different production of "Our Town" was recently the hottest ticket in Chicago. That production, from a company called the Hypocrites, was directed by Cromer” - Steve Oxman, Variety 8/1/08

09/18/08 - 10/26/08

Thu-Sat 8p; Sat-Sun 3p (Opens 9/24)

Prolific Director, Off Off Off Off Broadway - Charles Isherwood, New York Times 11/7/08

IS David Cromer the most talented theater director that Americans have never heard of?

Er, silly question, I know. Most Americans could not name a single theater director, talented or not, Tony-laureled or obscure, unless a nephew, daughter or second cousin happens to be one. But Mr. Cromer has a low profile even among the theater cognoscenti in New York, because he has worked for the last two decades in Chicago, mostly at the kind of small, funky spaces that seem to take root in almost every neighborhood in this theater-rich city.

As the first fingers of a chilly Midwestern winter began to tickle noses, Mr. Cromer was seemingly omnipresent on the small-theater scene here. By night he was playing the Stage Manager in his freshly reimagined production of “Our Town,” a smash for the Hypocrites theater troupe last season, which returned for an encore run this fall at the enchantingly funky Chopin Theater in the Wicker Park neighborhood. During the day Mr. Cromer was in rehearsals directing a new play, “Celebrity Row” by Itamar Moses, at the American Theater Company.

And out in the suburb of Glencoe, north of Chicago, at the Writers’ Theater, Mr. Cromer’s evocative staging of William Inge’s “Picnic” was earning rapturous notices. “It is one of the best performances of anything — and I mean anything, not just plays — that I’ve seen in my life,” Terry Teachout wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “This is a destination show, worth traveling any distance to see.”

The roaring Broadway success of “August: Osage County,” which began life here at the Steppenwolf Theater Company and opens at the National Theater in London this month, has rekindled the Chicago-New York theater connection. Coincidentally the Chicago Shakespeare Theater picked up the regional Tony Award this year. (This is the only city that is home to four companies that have been given that laurel; the Steppenwolf, the Goodman Theater and the Victory Gardens Theater are the others.) But the city really is most notable for the health and variety of its smaller theaters, making it possible for directors like Mr. Cromer, and scads of talented actors, to forge careers — perhaps more artistically rewarding than financially remunerative — without leaving town.

In recent years, however, Mr. Cromer, a native of Skokie who attended high school and college here (he didn’t finish either, he amiably confides), has begun branching out, in particular earning some well-deserved attention from New York.

His Steppenwolf production of Austin Pendleton’s “Orson’s Shadow” was a modest hit when it moved to the Barrow Street Theater in Greenwich Village in 2005. This year his searing production of a musical adaptation of Elmer Rice’s “Adding Machine,” first produced at the Next Theater in Evanston, opened at the Minetta Lane Theater. It was among the best-received Off Broadway productions of last season and had a healthy run of five months — impressive for a small-scaled, pitch-black musical. Mr. Cromer won Obie and Lucille Lortel awards for his work.

So why isn’t he ensconced in the country’s theater capital by now, fielding offers from New York’s major not-for-profit theaters?

The man himself points to the figure in the mirror, mostly. “I have always been a little lazy,” he confesses, speaking primarily of his decision to stay in Chicago as his career developed, rather than head east at some point to bring it to the next level. “I may not be the most adventurous person.” And he’s been busy working.

He has only recently acquired a New York agent. (“There really are no agents for directors in Chicago,” he notes.) A tinge of wistfulness can be detected when he speaks of his happy experiences working in New York — albeit under the relatively risk-free conditions of restaging well-received work.

“It still has a romance for me, a romance that would probably evaporate soon if I move there,” he says. “And I don’t think I would have survived in New York as a young man. I was too sad.”

Mr. Cromer, who is now 44 and can be melancholy and funny at once, directs a wide range of work, old and new. (Next up: Aaron Sorkin’s “Farnsworth Invention” at the Alley Theater in Houston.) His productions are marked by a delicate touch and an emotional intricacy that are best served by a seat in the front row. But the remarkable thing about his work is that you always seem to have a prime view, even if you’re up against the back wall. I was at the back of the theater when I saw Mr. Cromer’s heart-rending production of Inge’s “Come Back, Little Sheba,” but the transparency of the acting was such that every quicksilver flicker of emotion registered crisply. (That production, for the tiny Shattered Globe Theater company in 2006, was infinitely superior to the limp version seen on Broadway last season.) “Our Town,” which Mr. Cromer staged with the actors surrounding an audience of a few dozen seated in just six rows, gave a sharp contemporary accent to a play that often comes wreathed in folksy warmth, despite its thorny message of life’s dissatisfactions.

“I saw a review of the original production that said it was ‘the last word in avant-garde theater,’ with its stage directions requiring no scenery, and the dead people speaking,” Mr. Cromer says. “But what was at one point innovative had become standard vocabulary for the theater. How do you strip the artifice away today, get it back to its original cool?” Mr. Cromer’s approach took Thornton Wilder’s stark ethos a bit further. His production is mostly performed with the house lights up, and the actors wear street clothes and forgo New England accents. But he springs a startling surprise in the last scene that adds a vivid accent to its sharp philosophical thrust. And to watch this play about the little pleasures and big heartbreaks of life amid an audience whose responses become part of the fabric of the play added a moving dimension to it.

It was hard not to feel with unusual potency the pain of life’s fragility as you sat cheek by jowl with the inhabitants of the Grover’s Corners cemetery. Almost anybody in the audience could reach out and touch one of the becalmed deceased sitting placidly in their chairs.

Anna D. Shapiro, the Chicago director who won a Tony Award for “August” this year, has known Mr. Cromer since they studied directing together at Columbia College here. (They actually went to the same high school, but they didn’t know each other then.) She has seen almost all his work and says she considers precision to be his greatest strength as a director.

“His interpretations never feel general or vague,” she says. “He’s got a meticulous brain. And he’s not driven by overarching external ideas about a play. Everything that’s happening in David’s productions is happening between people. He’s also completely unafraid of sentiment, but he delivers the sentimental in an honorable way.”

Mr. Cromer confirms that he never approaches a text with an idea of imposing a radical interpretation on it. “More and more I’m obsessed with taking a close-up approach, letting the audience come to us. But it’s not what you can do to the play but what the play does to you, really,” he says. “ ‘Our Town’ and ‘Picnic’ were very different experiences. ‘Our Town’ was almost made up as we went along. One day in rehearsal we used real string beans and liked the sound of the snapping in the small space, so we kept it in. We started rehearsals with some roles uncast. “ ‘Picnic,’ on the other hand, needed to be tightly controlled, down to the smallest detail. We obsessed about everything — the strawberries on the cake, the number and color of the leaves.”

He admits that he’s been less than obsessive about guiding his career and that his meticulousness has sometimes caused friction with theaters. During a rough patch several years back he was on the outs with more than one Chicago-area theater. (He has since patched up the relationships.) Fortunately, there is always another scrappy theater company springing up in a storefront.

“In New York there is a finite amount of space, so competition for that space is profound,” he observes. “Here we’ve got lots of room. It’s the Midwest. The city is spread out, and there are lots of places to work. If things aren’t going well, you don’t have to leave,” he says with a laugh. “You can fail a lot while you’re finding your way.” The economic imperative is not a factor as it inevitably is in New York, where the mercantile ethos of Broadway can insinuate itself into the mind-sets of even the not-for-profit theater. “Our theater culture here is not commercial,” Ms. Shapiro notes. “Aspirational artists here are not looking at Broadway. The action is at the big not-for-profit theaters like the Steppenwolf and the Goodman. Our theatergoing public has that orientation as well.”

Of course New York’s renewed attention to Chicago theater over the past year has not gone unnoticed. “People do have an eye to New York,” Mr. Cromer says. “It seems to happen every 20 years or so. In the ’60s there was Alan Arkin and Barbara Harris and Nichols and May. Of course you had Mamet and the Steppenwolf in the 1980s. Now ‘August’ has made a big splash.”

He is both level-headed and maybe a little sentimental — honorably sentimental — in discussing the centrality of New York in American theater culture. “I don’t think the theater is too New York-centric,” he says. “It just is New York-centric. But doesn’t there have to be a place, a destination? The country is so big. Chicago is a great place to work, and it’s a hell of a lot easier to live here. But I wouldn’t want to lose New York as a sort of icon. There has got to be an Emerald City.”

”Cromer, Graney, Berry: Fall is a tale of 3 hot directors” - Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune 10/17/08 - If you look at the non-musical Chicago shows with a lot of buzz so far this fall: “Picnic” at Writers Theatre, “Our Town” by The Hypocrites, “Edward II” at Chicago Shakespeare, and the Griffin Theatre’s “On the Shore of the Wide World,” you’ll see they’re the work of three provocative, auteur-style Chicago directors whose careers are most assuredly on the rise.

Go and see the work of David Cromer, Sean Graney and Jonathan Berry and you’ll get a snapshot of what might well be a hefty chunk of the artistic future of Chicago theater. That’s assuming these busy guys—who don’t have secure positions running big Chicago institutions—decide to stick around town.

God, I hope they do. I think they’re all exciting talents, and I think serious Chicago theatergoers should make sure they see all four of those very worthwhile productions. (Cromer helmed both “Our Town” and “Picnic.”) Two in this triumvirate are still early in their careers—and Cromer, although more accomplished and experienced, is hardly decrepit. Graney and Berry’s works are not yet fully developed. You’ll see their flaws. And I think all three of these guys could learn from each other.

I felt mixed about Graney’s “Edward II,” mostly because I think the show lacks thematic clarity and an emotional center. But I’ve heard from a lot of readers, especially college kids, who find Graney’s in-your-face chunk of Christopher Marlowe to be tremendously fresh and exciting. And indeed, formatively speaking, that’s true. Accomplished actors nearly bust a gut in Graney’s hell-for-leather concept and occasionally have to literally shove the audience out of the way as they perform.

But you never get the sense that you’re getting inside the hidden soul of the characters. For that, you have to go to “Picnic” and “Our Town.”

Both of these shows have such devastating clarity and eloquent simplicity—Cromer is like a weird homing pigeon, cutting through the characters’ defenses. Now, if Graney could add that minimalist skill to his maximalist theatrical arsenal, he’d really be something. And I think the sometimes overly intense Cromer could learn from Graney’s inherently optimistic theatricality.

That brings me to Berry, the least experienced of the three. But this guy really knows how to pick exciting drama—like “Wide World,” Simon Stephens’ very gritty and moving new play from the U.K.

Berry, who trained at Northwestern University and works often for Griffin, feels very much like one of the ambitious young directors who’ve emerged from Evanston with the hungry actors and designers they knew in college. Berry gets a lot right—he makes strong, powerful choices and he can cast very well. And he makes low budgets look like inspired choices, not necessary economies. His Achilles’ heel is a tendency to run out of steam—he needs some of that Cromer focus and a good dose of that Graney energy.

Unlike Cromer and Graney, Berry has yet to get his shot at a big-time Chicago theater. He’s good and ready. Indeed, all three of these guys have their best work ahead.

Chris Jones Recommends, “4 Stars” – Chicago Tribune 10/17/08 - “David Cromer has crafter an astounding, revisionist production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”. If yourtastes run to shows that make you stare right in the face of your own mortality and inability to prioritize what really matters in life, then go and see this show”

Critic's Pick - Kris Vire, TimeOut Chicago 10/2/08 - "Contrast that with Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s 1938 portrait of a dozen years in the life of a small New Hampshire burg. As Cromer’s stellar production for the Hypocrites (first seen in April and now remounted at the Chopin) emphasizes, Wilder’s concerned with the better angels of small-town nature: the sense of community; looking out for the welfare of others as well as our own; appreciation of life’s every, every minute.

On second viewing, it’s hard not to think of this devastating Our Town as the flip side of the Picnic coin. The “simplicity” that Picnic’s Flo wishes for is a freedom from making choices. Our Town, on the other hand, is an exhortation to relish the choices we make"

N.Y. spotlight shines on Chicago - Steve Oxman, Variety 8/1/08 - "Chicago directors Robert Falls, Mary Zimmerman and Frank Galati established high-profile careers by dividing their commitments between their home base and New York.

Last season, another group of helmers from the Windy City -- led by Anna D. Shapiro ("August: Osage County") and David Cromer ("The Adding Machine") -- raised their profiles to the next level with respective Broadway and Off Broadway successes.

Now the balancing act begins as they seek to navigate a life in the nurturing environment of the Chi theater community with a national spotlight and more offers to leave their Midwest HQ.

Shapiro made the biggest splash, taking home the Tony for her work on "August: Osage County." A Steppenwolf member and head of the directing program at Northwestern U., Shapiro's work on Tracy Letts' Pulitzer-winning drama possessed a sure-footedness with a large ensemble, and a keen sense of how to let dramatic tension rise and fall in a play that could have overdosed on intensity.

Shapiro will remount "August" in London in November with most of the original cast, and is already busy with preliminary work associated with the national tour of the show, which will start in fall 2009.

"It's become a franchise that's taken over my life," says Shapiro, "but I'm just so proud to be associated with it."

Shapiro has had some significant job opportunities emerge since "August" took off, including running a prominent regional theater, but ultimately she decided to stay put. "I think Chicago has, at its core, a balanced approach to life," says the director. "My friends here are as excited about the new house we bought as they are about the Tony, and I like that. I don't find that anywhere else."

Known as a new play specialist, this season Shapiro will direct preems at Steppenwolf (Bridget Carpenter's "Up") and the Goodman (Regina Taylor's "Magnolia").

Next though, she'll team with Jessica Thebus -- who made her Off Broadway helming debut last year with "When the Messenger Is Hot" -- to co-direct Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" with Lookingglass, starting perfs in February. David Schwimmer stars as the romantic lead. "We're interested," explains Shapiro, "in bringing the older perspective to the younger experience."

Oddly enough, a different production of "Our Town" was recently the hottest ticket in Chicago. That production, from a company called the Hypocrites, was directed by Cromer, who received the Off Broadway Lucille Lortel Award for helming tuner "Adding Machine," another Chicago-initiated project that became an unlikely New York hit.

With "Adding Machine," Cromer helped make the singing of Joshua Schmidt's often atonal music feel like natural speech, and his approach to "Our Town" similarly dealt with finding a means to lend authenticity to the artificial. It started with the casting of Cromer himself as the Stage Manager.

"There have been a couple of times in the past when I almost played the Stage Manager," says Cromer. "I always knew I wouldn't walk around with a vest and a pipe, chuckling. I would just talk, conversationally."

Cromer made a lot of friends and contacts while taking "Adding Machine" to New York, and ever since he has considered moving there. "There's always this feeling," he says, "I don't want to abandon my home, where I'm from, or work in that environment. But do I want to never live anywhere else?"

For the next few months, at least, he can blame his busy workload for delaying the decision. He's signed to direct "Celebrity Row" by Itamar Moses at Chicago's American Theater Company, "The Glass Menagerie" at Kansas City Rep and "The Farnsworth Invention" at the Alley Theater in Houston.

Before that, however, he'll restage "Our Town" at the same time he's helming William Inge's "Picnic" at Writers' Theater in suburban Glencoe. That means he'll be rehearsing all day and performing at night.

"He's always doing stuff like that," says Shapiro. "I'd be dead."” -

“...among the very best off-Loop productions of our era. – Chicago Tribune 5/9/08

"Astonishing...cancel whatever you're doing tonight and go and see this show". - Chicago Tribune 5/2/08

Highly Recommended ".. production should travel the globe... far better ambassador of "American values" than any stiff-necked consular official” - Chicago Sun Times 4/29/08

The Hypocrites had a HIT earlier this year with their SOLD-OUT performances of “Our Town” directed by and starring David Cromer. Director Cromer returns to the Chopin Theatre Studio, unleashing his inner-Hypocrite for a limited six week remount of this hit production.

Thornton Wilder

John Byrnes, David Cromer, Tim Curtis, Dave Fink, Donna Fulks, Jennifer Grace, Brian Hinkle, Rosalind Hurwitz, Beth Kathan, Chris Ligon, James Lusk, Lori Myers, Jeremy Noll, Bill O'Connor, Evan Sierminski, D'Wayne Taylor, Rani Waterman, Steve Welsh, Ian Westerfer

Corrie Besse (Stage Manager); Maggie Fullilove-Nugent (Production Manager); Courtney O'Neill (Scenic Design); Alison Siple (Costume Design); Heather Gilbert (Lighting Design); Josh Schmidt (Sound Design)and Ian Zywica (Technical Director)

Tags: Theater, American, 2008