Among the constants of any theater's opening-night party these days are an assortment of semi-stale cookies, plastic cups of room-temp white wine and conversations that, if they're lucky, swiftly lead to the name James Kronzer. The 43-year-old set designer, we're discovering, has become the Kevin Bacon of Washington theater, with the important difference that, thanks to Kronzer, there are not six degrees of separation in this happy little subculture, but two. Or three at the most.
To some extent, Kronzer's status as a connector (if you want to get all Malcolm Gladwell about it) can be traced to the designer's prolific output. He tries to hold his commitments to about 15 productions a year but often finds he's involved in more than 20, a habit borne of the days when work didn't come so easily. We surmised that Kronzer's go-to status has less to do with his refusal to say no than his refusal to corral his eclectic interests. But even we didn't know how eclectic we were talking.
"I just finished this thing for Disney on board one of their cruise ships," Kronzer says, referring to a 52-minute adaptation of "Cinderella" for which he designed the sets. At the same time, he also conjured up an 1880s Alabama homestead (for "The Miracle Worker," now playing at Olney Theatre Center) and the Brecht-beholden space for Signature Theatre's Washington premiere of "Urinetown."
But wait, there's more. In the coming weeks, Kronzer will summon theatergoers into the twisted world of reality TV (Woolly Mammoth Theatre's "After Ashley," opening in September) and the graceful, though similarly twisted, Italy of Beatrice and Benedick (Folger Theatre's production of "Much Ado About Nothing" in October).
"That's the great thing that's happened in Washington: There are many theater artists who now make a living at it full time," Kronzer says, still sounding astonished at how the local scene has matured. (Health insurance! Pensions!) "That would have been impossible a few years ago."
As impossible, say, as your finding a connection among Kathie Lee Gifford, Helen Hayes and Barbie, right? Nah, that's an easy one. For her self-penned musical "Under the Bridge," Gifford last year hired Kronzer, who went on to win the second of his two Helen Hayes awards in May (for Olney's "Diary of Anne Frank") and then joined a Clear Channel-bankrolled stage version of a doll's life -- "Barbie Live in Fairytopia!" -- which embarks on an 80-city North American tour next spring.
In short, no connection is too far-fetched when it comes to Kronzer, whose life appears to have become its own fairytopia, the very sort of straight-line success story that's targeted by dystopias like "Urinetown," a sort of Broadway musical counterlife.
"You're very aware of the space, you're very aware of theatrical conventions and you're not trying to hide anything," says Kronzer of his current work for Signature. The Brechtian overtones are part of the joke of "Urinetown," which is constructed somewhat like the social dramas of the 1930s. Be advised, however, that the quest this time is not for the right to a living wage but for the right to relieve oneself without penalty.
The role of the evil, soul-killing corporation is here assigned to the Urine Good Company, run by Caldwell B. Caldwell (Christopher Bloch), an evil demagogue in control of the public urinal market. Caldwell's monopoly becomes particularly significant after a severe water shortage forces the local government to mandate that all citizens use public facilities. Those who refuse to comply -- by, say, relieving themselves in the street -- are immediately banished to the hamlet that gives the musical its name. What follows is a dead-on parody of musical theater cliches that skewers a number of sacred cows ("Les Miserables" and "West Side Story" among them) but that ultimately -- paradoxically -- leaves one feeling more optimistic than ever about the future of Broadway musicals.
Kronzer's burgeoning career leaves us with a similar feeling, its rise accompanied, not coincidentally, by the boom in theater construction. "It's fun to be able to play in all these new spaces," he says, referring to the new stages at Olney, Woolly Mammoth and, soon, Signature, whose theater is scheduled to be completed early next year. "One of the most interesting things that happens when you move into a different and larger space is that you have more volume of air to fill."
Luckily, there are ever more artists to assist in this filling, a development that's at least as exciting as all the new housing going up. People like Kronzer remind us that while the auditoria get the lion's share of the press, it's the careers being built quietly in their shadows that are the real story.