Gray's One-Man Company Is a Crowd

Spalding Gray is getting to be a movie star.

"No, really, I'm not," protested the monologist/actor/writer, creator of "Swimming to Cambodia" (for stage and screen) and "Bedtime Story" (in PBS' recent "Trying Times" series). "I only do small character roles to keep up my health insurance and have a nice vacation from my work.

"It's still a horizontal fame, still a fame that I'm in control of, just comfortable with. I wouldn't want--I don't think I'd want--to be as famous as Dusty Hoffman. I love being anonymous. That's how I gather my material."

Most recently, Gray (who in 1985 brought "Swimming to Cambodia, Parts 1 and 2" to Taper, Too) has been gathering material for "L.A. the Other: Conversations With . . ." (opening Wednesday at Taper, Too) and "L.A. the Other: Building a Monologue" (opening Jan. 19). The "conversations" grew out of an audience-interview format Gray introduced last March for the Taper's 20th-anniversary celebration.

"We have about 60 people, all L.A. 'others,' who are coming in," he explained. "Five a night. It's an enormous organizing job and I'm fed up with it: It's like I'm a producer, trying to figure out who should be on what evening and how to get them in. We've got street people, derelicts, the man who runs the Flying Saucer Church, a blind woman, a surfer, a Buddhist monk, channelers. Explaining the project to each of them was very humbling. I felt like a shoe salesman."

In "Building a Monologue," Gray will be presenting a work-in-progress, developing a text probably (but not definitely) taken from his upcoming book, "Impossible Vacations." "It's autobiographical, of course," he said, "basically about guilt. When this New England Puritan tries to put himself in the most pleasurable situations, he complicates them by making his own hells. Though lately I'm doing better. . . ."

Gray's monologues (which are not written down) are usually developed over three to six months, tape-recorded and rearranged and, in the past, previewed for a small audience at New York's Performing Garage. "Audiences are my editor," he stressed. "Now the L.A. audience is going to be in on the seeds of the new monologue. It's a little scary. They must realize it's me talking for the first time--which is very different from the finished thing: this animated man with all the great rhythms and the timing and special effects."

After that, he says, comes "Mr. Spalding Goes to Washington."

"I want to approach a new subject--civics, American democracy, money. My money. I want to find out what they're doing with the tax money they're taking from me. So it'll be personalizing my experiences there: what happens when I go to see my senator or congressman, how much time they give me." Although he may get a more truthful picture as a non-celebrity ("I can observe better when they're not observing me"), some VIP treatment is quite pleasant--especially when it enabled him to attend the Iran-Contra hearing.

Fan flattery is also nice. "I got recognized twice today," he volunteered. "It made me feel like I had outlines. I came together. They knew me from the film 'Swimming to Cambodia.' " Gray also has appeared in "The Killing Fields" ("Swimming" is based on that experience) and David Byrne's "True Stories," and will be featured in two upcoming movies: "as a demented Southern reverend--what other kind is there?" in "Stars and Bars," and as a "middle-aged grief counselor" in the Whoopi Goldberg-starrer "Clara's Heart."

With girlfriend Renee Shafransky, Gray is also developing a film about Nicaragua (a comedy) for Columbia, and assembling a deal with HBO for a Charles Kuralt-type interview/exploration-of-America series.

"I've become a conduit to other people's personalities," he noted, "which is really quite overwhelming, because I'm a person with boundary problems. What I get from people stays with me, affects me. I don't think any of us are formed. I form myself every day behind my desk in my room. I find myself by writing--and then when I go out, wandering around L.A., I begin to lose that. Today I went Christmas shopping at the Beverly Center and got a little wacko."

CRITICAL CROSSFIRE: Mimi Friedman and Jeanette Collins have caught the critics' fancy with their dozen sketches in "Canned Laughter" (at the Cast Theatre).

Said Don Shirley in The Times: "The perversely titled 'Canned Laughter' seems as fresh as the morning coffee. And Collins and Friedman come off as a couple of witty neighbors who drop in on each other just for the company--like two Rhoda Morgensterns who live next door. . . . They're not only the Stitch Sisters, the two surviving members of a '40s singing group, now playing the VFW, but they're also Verna and Velma Welch singing (and miming) country gospel at the Holiday Inn."

From Lee Melville in Drama-Logue: "Physically they are opposites, as Friedman is a zaftig lump with curly hair and Collins is a thin brunette. Their home base is Mimi's New York kitchen, re-created on the Cast stage, where they develop most of their routines, between snacks, from improvs. . . . As with most good satire, this has moments that ring so true they are funny and profound at the same time."

Bill Rader, in the L.A. Weekly, noted that "with only two writer/performers, the most minimal of costume changes and none of the spotty improv 'games' to muck anything up, Collins and Friedman have hit on a chemistry and a sensibility where less translates into more and laughs come anything but canned. Never do the two performers condescend to either the characters or the audience."

Said the Hollywood Reporter's Jay Reiner: "Collins and Friedman work exceptionally well together. Friedman plays an assortment of old ladies and young kids, while Collins is adept at accents as well as playing the middle range of life. But there's really not much risk-taking, or bite, to these sketches, which are better performed than they are written."

Last, from Joseph Megel in the Reader: "Collins and Friedman are funny, clever, tuneful performers. We meet numerous wonderfully created characters. In 'Korean Market,' for example, Jeanette plays Shu Ying, a shopkeeper to Mimi's Yango, a jive black woman who is confused about the ingredients in the salad bar. . . . Each of the sketches is lovingly created and rooted in truth."

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