David Cromer Juggles Directing and Acting In Some Of This Season’s Most Exciting Work

"I learn more about directing while acting and more about acting while directing," says David Cromer, who directed 'Prayer for the French Republic' on Broadway and is currently appearing in 'The Animal Kingdom' Off Broadway.

 

Tasha Lawrence, Uly Schlesinger, and David Cromer in The Animal Kingdom Emilio Madrid

You might recognize the title of The Animal Kingdom from the 1930s Philip Barry comedy of manners about a man trying to justify his love for both his wife and his mistress. Well, forget it. That is emphatically not The Animal Kingdom which restlessly inhabits the Connelly Theater these days.

This new Animal Kingdom—by British TV writer Ruby Thomas, imported to these shores by producer-director Jack Serio—has a man, Tim (played by David Cromer), who resolved that quaint wife/mistress quandary years ago. He married the mistress and started a new family, only to dragged back into therapy sessions with the family he left behind: his logorrheic wife Rita (Tasha Lawrence), his ignored daughter Sofia (Lily McInerny), and his anguished son Sam (Uly Schlesinger), fresh from a suicide attempt that brought on this forced “reunion.” A zoology major in college, Sam sees the women in his home as bonobos and his emotionally pent-up dad as a hippopotamus with a submerged, slow-beating heart—thus, evidently, an animal kingdom.

“Sam understands the animal world,” Cromer tells Observer, “but can’t manage the human world.” 

There is much to unpack here, and it’s handled with remarkable compassion and patience by a soft-spoken psychotherapist, Daniel (Calvin Leon Smith), who does all he can in six sessions.

Like Austin Pendleton and Joe Mantello, Cromer is a hyperactive hyphenate—a theatrical professional who wears two interchangeable hats: one for acting, and one for directing. 

“I like it very much,” he says. “I’ve a complicated relationship to acting. Acting’s something I cared about very much when I was young, and I don’t think I spent the intervening years owning it. I’ve gone back to it a few times and, mostly, just encountered my own limitations, but I always come back to the idea that it’s an interesting challenge. It’s interesting to go on the other side. I learn more about directing while acting and more about acting while directing.”

It can get “a little overwhelming.”  But, he adds, “I guess I like the idea that if your brain’s working that hard all the time on a bunch of problems—it keeps you limber, and it keeps your brain agile.”

Actor and director David Cromer. Courtesy of David Cromer

 

That professional duality has followed him since he reached New York from his native Chicago. Early on, he staged the longest run Thornton Wilder’s Our Town ever got (one directorial flourish: it was the first time Emily smelled breakfast bacon when she returned for her 12th birthday). He also acted the Stage Manager, soliciting audience questions about his community.

Almost 20 years later, The Animal Kingdom continues his two-hatted tradition. He found—or made—time to play the bottled-up dad trying to make belated amends for his family failings. 

“Tim still has a very close relationship with all of them. It’s not a warm relationship because he’s not that kind of person. It is recognizable to me in my relationship with my own family, my relationship with my father, my father’s relationship to me. I feel like my dad in this, and I feel like I was Sam when I was young and my dad was Tim. There’s a point where you don’t get what your children are like. For someone who is as emotional and as volatile as Sam, that would be really difficult to Tim. He loves his kids. I don’t think he likes them to the extent he’s capable.

“The time I spend in the play, I gather that I have served my family poorly. I admit it. I say I’ve been a bad father. I didn’t learn how to do it. That’s not an excuse. I’m trying to be different with Elsie, who is his new child with his second wife. I’m trying to be better, but I can’t go back.”

This role materialized just when Cromer was locked into two important projects as a director.

Molly Ranson, Francis Benhamou, Nael Nacer, Aria Shahghasemi, Betsy Aidem, and Anthony Edward (from left) in Prayer for the French Republic. Jeremy Daniel

First, he had to ready his Off-Broadway hit, Joshua Harmon’s Prayer for the French Republic, for Broadway and Tony consideration. “Remounting is always an opportunity to upgrade how we executed things and how safe it is to revisit all our choices,” Cromer admits. “We were trying to do something that is very like a Broadway play on an Off-Broadway schedule. The play is very ambitious in its scope and in its length. Josh did a little shaping, but he didn’t change much.

“I thought very differently about the sound and the music than I did before. We had the chance to explore low-lighting in a richer way than we did in a smaller space with fewer resources.”

Before and after performing The Animal Kingdom, Cromer is busying himself with a bizarre project that will reunite him with his Tony-wining teammates from The Band’s Visit, composer David Yazbek and book writer Itamar Moses. It’s called Dead Outlaw, and it starts previews at the Minetta Lane Feb. 28 and opens March 10.

Yazbek, who’s collaborating with Erik Della Penna on the songs, is the one who stumbled across this true, but decidedly odd, story: a successful alcoholic but failed train-robber, Elmer McCurdy was killed by a sheriff’s posse and embalmed. No one claimed the body, so, in an effort to keep the body, it was embalmed with a lot of arsenic (which was a preservation they used to use in embalming). He was mummified, did not decompose and was displayed for decades. “Come see the famous outlaw!” The body got passed around and shown at various carnivals and traveling shows and museums until eventually people forgot that this was a real person. When they accidentally discover that he was, it is a real showstopper—in several senses of the word.

That’s a lot of balls in the air—plus, Cromer managed to act in the intimate version of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya staged last summer in a 19th Street loft.

His presence in The Animal Kingdom he explains in two words: Jack Serio. “I have a really good relationship with him. We did Uncle Vanya together last summer, and we just love to talk about plays. He found this play, and I thought it a beautifully wrought play about attempted suicide.

“My younger brother, Michael, committed suicide in 2015. That’s a specific part of my life, where my brain is, where my understanding of life is, so I found the survival aspect of this story worth doing. I knew I’d be too busy and exhausted, but I really couldn’t walk away from it.”

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David Cromer Juggles Directing and Acting In Some Of This Season’s Most Exciting Work