STAGE REVIEW : TAKING A SWIM WITH A FRIEND

Times Theater Critic

Spalding Gray's monologues inspire a reaction rare in theater: affection. You're aware of the art involved, but most of the time it might be you and he in a bar somewhere, two friends from way, way back. So, Spalding--how was Thailand? Give.

And he makes you see it--the jungle, the sex clubs, the film crew (he was there making "The Killing Fields"), his Perfect Moment out in the surf, his minor nervous breakdown on getting back to the States (not that anything that happens to Spalding Gray is minor), all those epiphanies.

"Oh, and Renee was over there. . . " You nod, remembering his situation with Renee. In fact, this is the first you've heard of her, but that's a technicality. Guys don't open up like this to strangers. Waitress, another round.

"Swimming to Cambodia" is the name of Gray's new piece at Taper, Too. Two pieces, actually, although he performed them back-to-back for the convenience of the press Wednesday night. It is as quirky and droll as his 1983 round of confessions in this house ("47 Beds," "A Personal History of the American Theatre") and at least as self-centered.

When part of a man's mission in life is to establish to himself that he does have a center, there's no offense in that. Gray's persona, in these pieces, is that of a ridiculously overbred fellow from Rhode Island who sees everybody's point of view so thoroughly that he doesn't know where he stands on anything.

Talking with a crazed American sailor on a train (everybody Gray meets seems to be crazed), it occurs to him that maybe this nut is right--maybe the Russians are slathering to blow up the world. Evil does exist, after all. Look at Hitler, look at the mass killings in Cambodia. . . .

Add to a naturally worrisome disposition, the transparent quality of a good actor. The result is a man with some fears of disappearing into the flux of things altogether. And the process of making a war movie in the middle of Thailand (with time out for some bizarre R&R; in Bangkok) does plunge you into the flux.

Again, the character whose misadventures we follow in "Swimming to Cambodia" is not necessarily the real Spalding Gray, but it's an awfully convincing representation. This may be the first one-man show in history where an actor portrays himself, missing not a single tic.

But what makes Gray dim to himself also makes him a masterly observer. His eye never gets confused in the flux. He really watches. He really listens. He soaks it all up, seizing on the detail that makes the memory come to life for the listener. For instance, the sailor on the train has these strange little baby-sized ears--"like pasta shells." We see it.

And he tells a story like a master. The impression is that the memories are all coming back to him in a rush, too fast, almost, for him to keep up with them. And, again, there's got to be some truth to this. As an actor he knows how to believe.

But somewhere back there he's structured all this. His riffs have a solid harmonic foundation. Each story is going somewhere, even as it seems to be making an impossible backward or sideways turn--to a scene at Gray's family dinner table 40 years ago in Rhode Island, say.

This isn't just dazzling construction. It makes the point that Thailand and Rhode Island, Washington Square and Poland, are the same place. Which means that the horrific things that Gray learns about the massacres in Cambodia could have application here, if that cloud of evil came down in the wrong place.

He is not a political person, and the piece ends with his deciding to swim in his own ocean and find a Hollywood agent. But "Swimming to Cambodia" does see Spalding Gray connecting his private pain to that of the world, and feeling somewhat less isolated in it (though perhaps even more anxious about what's coming down next for us all). We await the next chapter in his odyssey with interest.

He'll be at Taper, Too (972-7654) through Feb. 3, alternating Chapters One and Two of the piece. Each is self-contained, but with Spalding you want to hear it all. Waitress?

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