New York

Spalding Gray

The Performing Garage

For nearly ten years Spalding Gray has been performing autobiographical monologues as an adjunct to his activity with the Wooster Group, the seminal experimental theater troupe. Unlike the work of that ensemble, which is multilayered, emotionally distanced, and relentlessly deconstructive, these solos are informal, vernacular, and, in form, an admiring direct quote of a basic storytelling mode. Wearing L. L. Bean-ish street clothes Gray appears as “Spalding Gray,” seats himself at a nondescript table, and reels off a picaresque monologue which has been rehearsed into a script. Within this stripped-down format he weaves tales with considerable skill, combining raconteurial expertise, comic shticking, and elements of cosmic teaching, autotherapy, and the confession.

Over time the monologues have become more elaborate—less monothematic bead strings and more interwoven and associative—and Gray’s performance of them has become more varied,more animated. He has an unusually broad theatrical background, from classic ’60s Off Broadway to cutting-edge experimental theater, and his considerable training, apparently discarded for these “modest” efforts, in fact permeates his deceptively simple storytelling. In fact, it now seems that the monologues are less a low-keyed alternative to the Wooster Group productions than a parallel search for similar dramatic truths on an individual scale.

In Swimming to Cambodia, Parts I and II, 1984, two related tales broken apart for convenience, Gray tells about his experiences as an actor in The Killing Fields, the recent movie about a New York Times correspondent’s friendship with a Cambodian colleague caught in the genocidal madness that swept the country under the Khmer Rouge. Gray’s part as a State Department assistant was small, allowing both an entrée to big-time movie-making and plenty of time to observe its inevitable zaniness. Throughout Swimming to Cambodia Gray uses a persona carefully cultivated since his earliest solos, that of the astonished, bewildered man-child trying to understand the “real” world. The pose lends itself well to the old tradition of the comedian as a fumbling schlemiel, and in fact these monologues are screamingly funny, as Gray outlines all kinds of misunderstandings, mixed motives, crazed conduct, and confusion at every turn, not least in his own behavior and in his reactions to the antics of others. Gray’s existential ironies emerge easily from the particular to the general—in the contradictions between sex-drenched Thailand and the ravaged Cambodia for which it stood in as a movie set, between courage and death-wish patriotism, between anesthetized Long Island suburbia and exotic Indochina. His conclusion: the “real” world isn’t more real, it’s just bigger.

A unifying thread through both monologues is Gray’s search for “the perfect moment,” the instant of oneness with self and universe that would put a spiritual gloss on the animal absurdities he finds saturating himself and every situation. Like a great comic, he lays out some avenues for real thought between his black-humor gags—and through them too, as when he describes the appalling damage done to Western “civilization” by its interventions in the Far East, or the craziness of life imitating art imitating life (styling themselves after Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now!, real Marines used as extras sing “The Ride of the Valkyries” when helicopters zoom in to film an action scene). Later, Gray tells of a ridiculous encounter with TV Land in which he was sent to audition for a sitcom that had already been canceled (of course he didn’t get the part—his reading of the banal dialogue had “too much edge”). Strangely enough, some of the characteristics of Gray’s experimental-theater background—absorption with self, a distanced approach to role-playing, a humorous skepticism—would seem the ideal qualities for a television actor. Such ironies will no doubt remain grist for the finely tuned, engaging, and often mocking stories of this character “Gray” who reports from the front lines of the search for self in such a selfless way.

John Howell