When Bruce Norris and I got together the other day, in the Beaumont lobby, to do an interview, we talked about Clybourne Park, his Pulitzer-Prize-winning play; and whether he's a conservative; and about a famous person he met when he was seven. We did not talk much about his new play,Domesticated, which will begin performances at the Mitzi E. Newhouse on October 10. There are at least two reasons for this. The first is that, as Norris puts it, "It's hard to talk about the genesis of this play without talking about my life. And I learned in the past, especially in one instance when I talked publicly about my private life and things went badly, that I wasn't going to do that again." The second is that Domesticated is still in rehearsal, and until it starts previewing and its plot details leak out online, there is no need quite yet to over-analyze its story with the author. Suffice it to say that Laurie Metcalf and Jeff Goldblum play Judy and Bill Pulver, whose marriage is thrust into the public eye by scandal.
Domesticated is one of several Norris plays being produced these days. His large-scale The Low Road was done earlier this year at the Royal Court, in London, and was described in a laudatory Guardian review as approximating "a picaresque fable by Henry Fielding transplanted to America between 1759 and 1776." The play's vast cast makes it difficult to produce as widely asClybourne has been been, but Norris says he's been talking to a New York nonprofit theater about putting it on. Another new Norris play, The Qualms,will be done next summer at Steppenwolf in Chicago, a company and a city with which the writer has long been associated. (He went to Northwestern and lived in Chicago for two decades.) Finally, a new production of Norris's 2010 work, A Parallelogram, is in the offing.
All these plays are not the result of some rapid Rilke-like explosion of inspiration over a few days or weeks. Norris explained: "Clybourne Park was written five years ago. Even though it's kept my name before theater audiences ever since, during this period I've been hard at work on all this other stuff." He added: "Sometimes, the quirks of theaters' scheduling means a lot gets put on in a short period."
Clybourne spurred discussion of whether 21st-century America is "post-racial," a notion that Norris addressed. "There's a lot of teleological silliness about concepts like 'post-racial' or 'post-gender.' They imply that there's continual social progress, which I tend to think is an illusion." Norris added that political progress is another matter. "There's a been a great deal of progress in my lifetime" - he grew up in a Houston suburb in the 1960s and 70s -- "in the kind of people who can get elected now."
Norris's 2004 play, The Pain and The Itch, helped widen his professional description from actor - he has performance credits including LCT's 1997 production of Wendy Wasserstein's An American Daughter - to first-rate dramatist. Because Pain skewered liberal as well as conservative ideas, Norris said "it made some people think I was 'the Republican playwright.'" It's an inaccurate characterization. "I could hardly be more liberal," he says, "at least on economic issues."
Norris does want his plays to shake up audience's assumptions, however. "I want people to leave the theater with less certainty than when they came in." He added: "I give detailed instructions to actors, and set up situations that I hope they like to perform."
As for his own on-stage ability, Norris said: "Great actors are unafraid to make asses of themselves. I don't think I have that gift." He added: "One of the things I enjoy about playwriting is that it's like doing improv on your own. You're making things up by yourself and acting them out in your workspace. I enjoy that."
P.S. The famous person Norris met at age seven was the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, renowned for crossing the Pacific in 1947 from South America to the Tuamotu Islands in a self-built raft. And what did young Norris say to him? "I asked him where he pooped when he was at sea."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com