Three days before the opening of Booth, director David Cromer is watching the cast rehearse a scene the playwright, Austin Pendleton, rewrote and distributed two nights before. He watches silently, cheek resting in the palm of his hand, knees bouncing up and down. Occasionally he gets up and moves to a different place in the makeshift, 50-seat theater.

Booth, now playing at Writers’ Theatre Chicago in Glencoe, tells the story of Junius Booth–a foul-tempered, alcoholic Shakespearean actor who dominated the American stage in the 19th century–and his relationship with his introverted son Edwin, who must become more like his father if he’s ever to realize his potential as an actor. Cromer says, “I’m interested in the question ‘Are the sacrifices we have to make in life worth it? Are the sacrifices that Edwin has to make worth it?’ I can relate to that. I often wonder if the sacrifices I’ve had to make in my life are worth it.”

The actors rehearse the rewritten scene eight or nine times, until Cromer’s satisfied that it seems real. “The most practical way to make a play,” he says, “is not to have some big concept but to make it true from moment to moment.”

Cromer is the director of several critically acclaimed plays, including And Neither Have I Wings to Fly, now finishing a nearly four-month run at Victory Gardens, and Orson’s Shadow, which played earlier this year at the Steppenwolf Garage. He’s given to quoting lines from The Simpsons and calls himself a “pop-culture guru.” But he’s best known among his friends and colleagues for his intense devotion to his work. “Work has always been the most important thing to David,” says Anna Shapiro, a director at Steppenwolf who’s been friends with Cromer since they met at Columbia College.

Cromer immerses himself so completely in his work that his life and the plays often become indistinguishable. When he directed On the Bum in 1995 he was obsessed with the main character. “I was busting everyone’s chops about the color of her hair and the color of her dress,” he says. “It had to be this green dress, and she had to have this bright red hair. It wasn’t until my mom came to see the play that I realized I was basing that entirely on a photograph of my mother from the 1930s.” Last year when he played the terminally ill Edmund Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night he became convinced that he had AIDS or lung cancer, though he refused to see a doctor. “Why should I go to the doctor?” he said. “So he can tell me I’m dying?”

Cromer flunked out of Evanston Township High School in 1980, when he was 16. He moved away from his mother’s home in Skokie, got an apartment with some friends in the city, and spent his first few years away from home “awash in unidentifiable prescription drugs and cheap red wine.” He worked odd jobs until he was 18, got his GED, and began studying acting at Columbia College.

After he began getting acting jobs–with the Oak Park Festival Theatre, the National Jewish Theatre–he dropped out. “I’m bone lazy,” he says. “I’m one of these people who can only do what they’re interested in doing. The only thing I ever cared about was working on plays.” But two years later he was back at Columbia, this time to study directing. Early on he could see a problem he would wrestle with for years. “I was trying too hard to mark the play with my scent,” he says. “I wanted to play up the themes. But if it’s a good play, the themes will play themselves. As a director, you have to clear away your ego to best serve the work–and I have massive ego problems.”

In 1987 Cromer, not interested in taking the general courses required to graduate, dropped out again. He worked as an actor, getting odd jobs to support himself. Then in 1991 he took over Shapiro’s role as the primary director in a small company called Big Game. His first production was Women and Water, the third play in a trilogy by John Guare. “That show was huge in a small way,” he says. The Tribune described it as “so thrilling in its adventuresomeness that one longs to see Cromer and company tackle the other two plays in Guare’s trilogy.”

His next few plays weren’t as successful–he was still paying too much attention to his own ideas. In 1992 he directed Spring Awakening, a Frank Wedekind play about sexual repression in early-20th-century Germany. “Spring Awakening didn’t work because it was what we call a ‘see’ play,” he says. “The whole time the playwright’s like, ‘See?’ And the audience is like, ‘Yeah. I got it five minutes in.’ The only reason I chose the play was because the main character reminded me of a childhood version of myself–and I wanted to save him. This character had fucked up during his whole life, and to me the play was about the frailty of that guy. But that’s not really what the play is about.” A 1995 adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan was also a flop.

Cromer left Big Game. He took acting jobs, worked as a data editor, and taught part-time at Columbia. And he directed a couple of plays, but they weren’t hits. In 1998 he was using scenes from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America in one of his classes, and he realized he wanted to put it on. He spent a year and a half drumming up money and assembling a group of actors. “Ninety percent of my job is casting the right people,” he says. “Then I just facilitate what they do.”

The show, which included a realistic depiction of anal sex Cromer couldn’t bear to watch, was the riskiest production he’d ever done. It was also the most successful. He and his crew won Joseph Jefferson awards for best direction, production, and ensemble, and Annabel Armour won one for best supporting actress. After 15 years of working for little to no money, Cromer was able to quit his day job and make theater a full-time profession.

The day after Booth opened, Cromer read Richard Christiansen’s review. It was a rave. “I’ve become slightly less obsessed with reviews than I used to be,” said Cromer, smoking his fourth cigarette in half an hour. He can recite the first review ever written about him–a Reader review from when he was an actor at the Kuumba Theater in the mid-80s: “David Cromer is a young man with white powder in his hair, a pencil-thin mustache painted on his face, who minces around the stage, smoking cigarettes like he’s Truman Capote, calling people ‘Darling,’ and berating his minions in incredibly cheeky displays of contempt. Part of this may be the fault of the writing. But Cromer is so unconvincing, it’s impossible to tell whether or not a real character was ever written.”

He grinned and said, “I wear that as a badge now. As I quote that–which anyone who knows me has heard me quote 150 times–I realize that basically I now have gray hair, I smoke cigarettes like Truman Capote, and I mince around calling people ‘darling.'”

Certainly other things concern him more than reviews. Recently he had trouble sleeping because he was worried about finding the right cast for his next production, Christopher Durang’s Betty’s Summer Vacation. And he worries that success has made him a little soft. He says the biggest risk he’s ever taken was his decision to be poor in exchange for doing what he loves. “There’s this very romantic view that you have as a young artist about what it’s going to be like, about starving. ‘Come on, man. I’ll just do whatever it takes.’ Then there’s this point where, as you get older, it just gets exhausting. Unfortunately, at that point you can’t do anything else. The risk is slightly starting to pay off financially. My biggest fear now is that I’ll stop taking chances because I’m afraid to stop getting paid.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.