Why didn't Bruce Norris play the game? | Bleader

Why didn't Bruce Norris play the game?

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Michael Brosilow

Winning the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Clybourne Park may have been the worst thing that could've happened to former Chicagoan Bruce Norris. The 51-year-old playwright and actor had spent years designing a life that left him free to be as sharp-tongued, difficult, misanthropic, and iconoclastically brilliant as he wanted—and he clearly wanted, quite a bit. Thanks to the occasional role in a movie (The Sixth Sense) or TV series (Law and Order), Norris was able to maintain the economic independence he needed to write scabrous satires like The Pain and the Itch, which revolves around a four-year-old girl's genital rash. And he was nurtured, often in spite of himself, by a cadre of supporters at Steppenwolf Theatre. Artistic director Martha Lavey put her company's considerable resources and prestige behind him. Amy Morton directed two of his scripts there, including the world premiere of Clybourne Park. And another Steppenwolf director, Anna Shapiro, has finessed his tirades and tolerated his provocations through no less than five projects.

But now that Norris's black-comic riff on A Raisin in the Sun has brought him the Pulitzer, he belongs to the world—and the world isn't quite so understanding.

Earlier this week the New York Post's Michael Riedel reported that big-time producer Scott Rudin has "pulled the plug" on the Broadway staging of Clybourne Park, scheduled to open this spring. Rudin had not only taken on the play but wanted to cast Norris as an actor in another of his ventures: the HBO serialization of Jonathan Franzen's novel The Corrections. Rudin claims in a statement that Norris took part in months of negotiation for The Corrections, made "more and more outrageous demands," got what he asked for, and still declined the role. In retaliation, Rudin dropped not only Clybourne Park but productions of two other Norris plays.

Now I suppose it's possible that Norris simply missed the quid pro quo implicit in Rudin's various offers. Maybe he just didn't understand that getting the Broadway run meant being in the TV show. But of course he's too smart (and too awake to human motivation) for that. What's more likely is that Norris was acting in the subversive, don't-tread-on-me manner to which he's always been accustomed—the manner colleagues and pals like Shapiro have always accepted, however much pain it caused, because they love and treasure him so much. Rudin just didn't love and treasure him enough.

There's a third possibility, though, which is that Norris was intentionally behaving poisonously so as to elicit exactly the reaction he got. Jules Feiffer has an old story called "Harold Swerg," about a file clerk who "could hit a baseball farther than any man alive. . . . kick a football farther than any man alive. And . . . run the mile faster than any man alive. . . . Only he wouldn’t." Everybody from the president on down tries to force Harold to "play the game," but he holds out and holds out and holds out. Finally, he agrees to participate in the Olympics. He goes up against the Soviet Union's greatest baseball hitter, football kicker, and mile runner, and ties them all to the centimeter. People accuse him of not giving his all, but he replies that it took everything he had to equal the Russians without beating them. "'Let’s see you try to kick a football exactly 310 yards, four feet, one inch,'” he says. Harold invites anybody who wants a record equaled to "'come around,'" Feiffer writes. "But nobody did, because nobody was interested in having records equaled. So they left Harold Swerg alone. Which was just the way he wanted it."

Norris's actions are almost definitely more complicated. He's a complicated guy. But maybe, if only subconsciously, he's pulling a Harold Swerg.

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