David Cromer on costarring in The Waverly Gallery on Broadway
How do you follow up winning the 2018 Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical? For David Cromer, who snagged that statuette for his work on The Band’s Visit, the answer was to book an acting gig. The prolific director — who launched his career in Chicago before making his name Off-Broadway with the musical Adding Machineand a long-running production of Our Town — had dabbled in performing in the past. (He played the Stage Manager in Our Town, had a small part in the 2014 Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun and even did an arc on the TV series Billions.) But he admits he has trouble calling himself a “real” actor. “I do not have the fortitude or courage to pursue acting the way real actors do,” he explains. “I still feel self-conscious that I’m being a little bit of a dilettante.” Yet, in need of a new project post-Band’s Visit, a creeping desire to return to the boards entered his mind.
A few weeks later, in a bit of kismet, the director got a call from The Waverly Gallery producer, Scott Rudin. He asked if Cromer would be interested in taking on the role of Howard Fine, the hilariously blunt son-in-law of an Alzheimer’s-stricken Greenwich Village art gallery owner played by the legendary Elaine May, in a Broadway mounting of Kenneth Lonergan’s 2000 memory play. He said yes without hesitation.
Cromer, whose humility borders on self-deprecation, feels immensely privileged to be part of this production, which also stars Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges as his empathetic stepson, Tony winner Joan Allen as his stressed-out wife and Tony nominee Michael Cera as a naive aspiring artist. “I have landed in a big pot of honey on this one,” he admits, saying his casting “has every right to infuriate the people who suffer more to do their work as an actor than I do.” Despite the risk of envy, he says the opportunity was too good to pass up, especially since he’s being directed by his good friend, Obie winner Lila Neugebauer, in her Broadway debut.
“Lila’s the absolute real deal,” Cromer gushes. “Her point of view as a director is very rich and detailed. I enjoy going to see her shows, which is not something I say often.” Because he trusts Neugebauer so much, Cromer has been able to turn off his “director brain” and focus on his role. “I think all actors have a little bit of director brain,” he says. “But it’s been really nice not to feel any urge to ‘fix’ anything.”
Cromer admits that impulse wasn’t always so easy to control. Decades ago when starting out as an actor, he butt heads with his directors, meddling outside his lane to offer unsolicited opinions, something he chalks up to inexperience. “I didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to express an opinion or say something to another actor or mention something to a designer,” he admits. “It’s none of your business — but I was young and exuberant and creative.”
Today, he sees acting as a chance to settle into a strictly defined role and is happy to hand off the big-picture thinking to Neugebauer. “I find an enormous relief at the narrowness of the scope of my responsibilities when I’m acting,” Cromer says.
Whether he’s performing or directing, Cromer’s taste in plays leans toward intimate naturalism. Both The Band’s Visit and The Waverly Gallery spotlight the extraordinary moments within ordinary life, as did Our Town and Man from Nebraska, which he helmed at Second Stage last year. “I think that there is an observable and exquisite construction in everyday events,” he says. “The more fantastical, avant-garde, fanciful constructions of a lot of artists are really gorgeous and enjoyable to me, but I’m not as fascinated by the architecture of those things.”
It was actually his affinity for slice-of-life dramas that got him The Waverly Galleryjob in the first place. “When my name came up, Lila and Scott thought, he directs these kinds of plays, so maybe he’ll act in one well. As opposed to saying, ‘Let’s see if Ivo van Hove will play Howard Fine — it was down to me and Ivo I think,” he jokes, name-checking the experimental Belgian theatre director. “I ended up booking it.”