New York

Spalding Gray

Vivian Beaumont Theater

Seldom do we speak of “genre” in performance, especially in reference to solo performances as emphatically different as those of Spalding Gray, Eric Bogosian, Holly Hughes, and Karen Finley. But we nevertheless point to these writer-performers (and the schools that followed in the late ’80s) as a loose group who utilize regional dialects to cover large emotional landscapes.

The monologue form developed by these artists over the last fifteen years has as much to do with the brute art of storytelling in the style of Lenny Bruce as it does with talk-show confessionals on Phil Donahue; it also draws on the timing and tone of the frequently repeated (and usually one-sided) conversations in a psychoanalyst’s chamber. In addition, each performer’s live material implicitly raises the question of how fine the line between personal catharsis and viable performance actually is.

For Spalding Gray this line is horizontal; it connects him to his audience like a loose string between the cans of a child’s homemade telephone. Indeed, Gray’s ability to connect directly with his audience is one of the most surprising aspects of his story telling, especially given the emotional high-wire he negotiates. He knows exactly how to construct illusions of intimacy, and he does this in a variety of ways. First he sits behind a simple blond desk, glass of water at arm’s length, in signature plaid shirt, just as he might do at home with a friend in his kitchen. Then he talks in a conversational voice, and confesses to a range of obsessive anxieties—some accessible to us all and others peculiarly his own. He also contrives a series of madcap adventures—such as a visit to a faith healer in the Philippines, or running naked in the snow with an American Indian sorcerer—in search of interesting detours that will add flavor to his autobiographical theater.

Despite the mood-enhancing value of these devices, Gray’s bittersweet and brilliantly executed monologues (starting with Sex and Death to the Age 14, 1986) barely disguise the neuroses that drive him. As is their nature, neuroses keep repeating themselves, so that there is a certain inevitability to his latest work, Gray’s Anatomy, 1993. We know that no matter how far and away he may travel to dispel the mounting panic triggered by an imminent eye operation (for a condition that is comically called a “macula pucker”), his story will come full circle. He will end where he began, which, in Gray’s Anatomy, is with a close-up scrutiny of the body in midlife. The threat of physical deterioration that he says his mother-in-law calls the “Bermuda Triangle of Health” (“Things start going wrong with you then, but if you make it through, then you live to be a ripe old age”) has clearly loomed large for Gray these past two years.

Gray’s performances and published writings have, for over a decade, eloquently and with flamboyant irony and wit, recounted a complicated autobiography. With Gray’s Anatomy, however, the writer brings us up to the present and both he and we realize that this may well signal the end of his past—that he may have used up the memory bank of his early life. Now he stands poised on the edge of his own future, and unnerved by the precipice, will no doubt plunge into a new round of richly textured writing.

RoseLee Goldberg