Spalding Gray : His New Favorite Subject--Him : Spalding Gray's latest monologue, 'Monster in a Box,' examines his life since 'Swimming to Cambodia' made him a celebrity--sort of

There seems to be some dissonance from a corner of the avant-garde.

"Narcissism?! It's taken such a bad rap. There are very positive aspects of narcissism."

Monologuist Spalding Gray, the self-described "raving talking head," creator of more than a dozen one-person performance narratives, including "Swimming to Cambodia," which was made into a 1987 film, is talking about talking about himself. Querulously.

"No, I think people are interested in a person, a man talking about his life," he says. "Not just because I'm self-obsessed, but because it includes all of our lives. It's like my New England background--certain things being forbidden. It's refreshing to have people speak close to what's on their minds. Like in my next monologue, I will speak a lot about my organs. My sex organs."

Within the iconoclastic ranks of contemporary raconteurs cut more or less from the disparate traditions of Mark Twain, Lenny Bruce and New York's downtown theater scene, Gray stands alone. Not because he is a box-office draw or for the trace elements of controversy he generates, such as the anti-war sentiments in "Swimming to Cambodia." Rather, Gray is unique among chic-come-round-again one-person performers--a list that ranges from Karen Finley to Lily Tomlin, Eric Bogosian to Garrison Keillor, even Jackie Mason--for being the most persistent of navel-gazers. Not for him the avuncular imaginary musings of Keillor or the schizophrenic character ravings of Bogosian or Tomlin. Gray's 13 monologues--beginning with "Sex and Death to the Age 14," in 1979 and on up to his latest, "Monster in a Box," which opens at Lincoln Center Wednesday--are all spun from the loose flywheel of their author's personality.

"I'm different from other one-person performers," Gray says during an interview in his downtown loft. "I'm not looking for Desert Shield jokes the way Jackie Mason would, or any comic would. I'm doing oral journals. I'm looking inward."

Richard Christiansen, theater critic of the Chicago Tribune and one of Gray's earliest champions, wrote in a recent review, "Gray's stories always begin and end within his psyche . . . forever filled with the strange, fearful terrors he has found therein."

If such post-Freudian self-absorption has been Gray's personal leitmotif, it is also a mirror now reflecting changes in the actor's public persona. Co-founder of New York's avant-garde Wooster Group theater nearly 15 years ago, Gray still insists, "I thought I would spend the rest of my life collecting unemployment." He is now pondering such Kierkegaardian excesses as "the dizziness that comes from too much possibility."

Gray's Lincoln Center run, already sold out, has been extended into January. Gray will perform an earlier monologue, "Terrors of Pleasure," with "Monster in a Box" at the Los Angeles Theater Center next summer. He is booked elsewhere--including a brief residency at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur--until the middle of 1992. His novel, which he is still editing, will be published by Knopf within the next 18 months, and there are always film offers and cable television specials to ponder. "Spalding is sui generis, but he is much more nationally known now, and it is easier to exploit his fame," says Gary Fisketjon, Gray's editor at Knopf.

Adds Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum, where Gray was in residence two years ago, "Spalding is unique among performers. The danger is that by doing what he does, he's become a personality."

It is an issue that Gray addresses in this latest monologue. Performed in typical Gray style--flannel shirt, glass of water, a desk and a microphone--"Monster in a Box" is ostensibly about the actor's attempt to write a quasi-autobiographical novel about the death of his mother. But in typical Gray style, the monologue is rife with narrative digressions, and "Monster in a Box" becomes a work about not writing a novel. Rather, it is about the price of success, how Gray coped with the spate of Hollywood roles he was offered after being in Roland Joffe's film "The Killing Fields" and Jonathan Demme's 1987 film version of "Swimming to Cambodia." These included such opportunities as the chance to interview on film some people who had been--or thought they had been--captured by aliens. Roles that Gray accepted included parts in such films as David Byrne's "True Stories," "Stars and Bars," "Clara's Heart" and most recently, "Beaches," starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey.

While Gray's monologues have been consistently well-received, his stage and film work, particularly his lead in the 1988 Broadway production of "Our Town," have been greeted less enthusiastically. Ergo discomfiture on the cusp of fame. "I want to work in films because of the health insurance--three weeks in a movie and you get a year's worth of major medical, including psychiatric," as Gray puts it in the monologue, which is largely set in Los Angeles. "But I know I shouldn't do too many more," Gray says in his loft. "I was brought out to L.A. to do that (Taper) project, and while it appeared to be a very pleasurable setting, I had no idea how difficult it would be for me to live out there."

Not surprisingly, Gray assumes a Woody Allen mantle in this monologue, his dour New England/New York sensibilities blinking in the Southern California light while lifting an accusing finger at the usual suspects: earthquakes, power lunches, Diet Coke, therapists and freeways. Even he admits "it's an old, old story." Like someone invited to Spago who only orders coffee, Gray even spurned the all-powerful Creative Artists Agency during his Los Feliz residency.

"No, I didn't sign with CAA," says Gray, pouring tea. "I was conflicted. I didn't want to be star. I could no longer be a fly on the wall, and that would have meant renouncing my monologues. Most actors can't talk about their lives because they have to preserve this certain image. If I'm around a lot of fans, I'm going inside myself to protect against their eyes. When I'm with strangers, everything goes outward. All my feelers are up, I pick up all new material. I'm alive. Celebrity would be death."

Gray says that "Monster in a Box" is "about resisting and grappling" with the growing encroachment of fame. "I'm a peripheral celebrity. My work is not that accessible. My father and stepmother won't come see me. My work is frightening and odd to the mainstream viewer. This is not a new 'Spalding Gray Show' I want to milk. It's the 13th monologue. I want to be done with it so I can get on with the next monologue."

The one about the sex organs, the one with the working title "Gray's Anatomies," will, like the best of Gray's monologues, attempt to go beyond personal therapeutic ramblings. Indeed, if "Monster in a Box" is ostensibly about the price of fame and Hollywood high jinks, it is also about the author's coming to terms with his mother's suicide. It is his most personal monologue. "I haven't come to terms with the whole story," he says, "--there are still too many missing links. But it is the first time I have told the story directly."

And it is a story that Gray will pursue further in "Gray's Anatomies," which will address the actor's growing sense of mortality as well as issues of faith and medicine. (Gray's mother was a Christian Scientist, and for a while Gray attended the Christian Science Church.) The central event of that monologue is an eye operation that Gray had in August.

"Do you want a cookie to go with your tea? They don't have any sugar in them," says Gray, absently rummaging through cupboards. "I'm on a new diet. I gave up drinking last summer. I told myself to do it. Partly because I had the eye operation this summer. I have it on videotape if they would like to see it. The doctor even put on titles, what are they called?" he says, turning to Renee Shafransky, his longtime companion. From the far end of the loft comes the answer: "Video Crayons." And then she adds, " 'Swimming to the Macula' . . . macula, that's the center of the eyeball."

Shafransky--a tall, dark-haired screenwriter best known in Gray's monologues as the long-suffering, ever-wise "my girlfriend Renee"--sweeps into the room dressed in black. She has the accent and energy of a native New Yorker, a stark contrast to the pale, hesitant actor. Shafransky, who is working on a screenplay for Universal and who has produced films including "Swimming to Cambodia," is directing Gray, for the first time, in "Monster in a Box."

"Yeah, they put a gas bubble in my eye and I couldn't lift my head for 10 days," says Gray, settling in at the kitchen table with the sugarless cookies and an array of organically grown fruit. "I had to sleep face-down, I got books on tape and got very depressed. But at least my vision is no longer blurred, like I was looking through a jellyfish. But that's the whole monologue about faith and medicine. I only do monologues about the serendipitous. I keep thinking that I will focus on my taxes and go to Washington and do a monologue about doing an audit with the IRS, but that would be contrived. It would be like a reporter looking for a story. As soon as I look for a story, another appears. I go blind or something happens."

It is his way, Gray says, of coping with "the chaos." And sitting here in his loft with the pale northern sky backlighting his flowing gray hair and the pale stubble on his cheek, Gray looks like a man who has seen a lot of chaos. He is taller and thinner, far less robust than he appears on stage. His demeanor is as flat as his Rhode Island accent, his humor sheathed in ice-cold irony. As Shafransky says, "When I first met Spalding, I thought he was a Martian. He revealed so much of himself onstage but he hardly ever talked to people in a real emotional way." In June, Gray will turn 50. While he admits that he and Shafransky are considering having a child, the avant-garde seems suddenly very, very tired.

Of his work process, Gray says, "The only way I know it's working is when I find myself in chaos. I start keeping a journal and the chaos becomes resolved. I get a big cardboard box and I throw in everything that is relevant. Later I see how it's organized." Later he will hone the monologue in front of audiences for nearly a year, editing and rearranging the material.

It is a performance technique that Gray stumbled on during his early years as an actor in New York. Born in Rhode Island in 1941 to an upper-middle-class New England family, Gray suffered from minor dyslexia and some behavioral problems as a child.

He didn't finish boarding school until he was almost 20, then attended Boston's Emerson College, where he majored in theater and discovered he could make people laugh with his storytelling. "It certainly wasn't on stage. I could barely get up there," he says. Instead, in the kitchen of the tony Katherine Gibbs School for secretaries, "I would hang with the help and tell stories to the other Emerson students, the old Irish ladies and the Merchant Marine guys, the reformed alcoholics. That's when I discovered I could be funny."

After graduation Gray drifted around the regional theater circuit for five years before landing in New York at the experimental Performing Garage. "I thought I would be a professional actor going from regional theater to regional theater, living alone, being a bachelor, putting myself to sleep every night with beers and spending the days pretending I was someone else," says Gray.

"But part of me knew that was a death trip," he adds when asked about the transition into confessional monologues. "And it was the '60s and I wasn't taking acid, but I had come to New York to work in underground theater. It was New York in 1967, and I went to see (Richard Schechner's) 'Dionysis' and it just blew my mind. I was terrified that these naked women on stage would come and pull me down and do something terrible to me. All my concepts about theater were just blown away by the Open Theater, Joe Chaikin's work and count everything else into it--Merce Cunningham, Meredith Monk, Charles Ludlum. I just walked into a caldron of creativity."

For five years, Gray worked with a variety of downtown artists before forming the Wooster Group with Elizabeth LeCompte, an artist and theater director whom he had met in Saratoga, N.Y. "It was a community, we all went to each other's work. That's how I found my form," says Gray. "I realized this was the place for me to initiate things." Indeed, it was at the Wooster Group that Gray first began using autobiographical material, in the company's early productions--their performance trilogy, "Three Places in Rhode Island." Much of those pieces were based on interviews Gray had conducted with members of his family after his mother's death. "They were very revealing tapes," recalls Gray. "We played them onstage as part of the performances."

"Always, Spalding told stories," recalls LeCompte, artistic director of the Wooster Group, whose headquarters are across the street from Gray's loft. "A lot of what he did at the beginning he did as therapy. His work is more complex now. But Spalding was never a naturalistic actor. He works very well with a mask, even if it's a mask of himself playing himself."

By 1979, Gray had spun off from the Wooster Group and was performing his first autobiographical monologue about coming of age in Rhode Island, "Sex and Death to the Age of 14" and began earning comparisons to Mark Twain.

"I first saw Spalding perform at a theater conference 10 years ago," recalls Gregory Mosher, artistic director of the Lincoln Center Theaters. "I was at the Goodman (Theater in Chicago) then and after five minutes I was laughing so hard I was crying. I had to block the aisle to keep other directors from getting to him first."

Since then Gray has worked steadily at small theaters and college campuses around the country, churning out performance pieces. By the mid-1980s Gray had caught the attention of British director Roland Joffe, who cast the actor as the American ambassador's aide in his Vietnam War film, "The Killing Fields." "That film swept me out of the Garage," says Gray. "It was my magic carpet out of Soho. It gave me a whole new outlook on the world." That film was quickly followed by Gray's most acclaimed performance piece to date, "Swimming to Cambodia," a four-hour, two-part monologue about the making of "The Killing Fields" that earned Gray an Obie Award, was published as a book and later made into the critically hailed film.

"I shot 'Swimming' and the whole thing took off," Gray says now. "Things just started happening." One of those things included an offer from Mosher, who was by then in New York, to play the Stage Manager in the Broadway revival of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town."

It was a performance that, despite Mosher's expectation that Gray would be "the Stage Manager of the '80s," was roundly savaged by the New York critics. "(Gray's) blase Tribeca hip-ness belongs to another planet," wrote Frank Rich in the New York Times. That production--including the tar-and-feathering by critics--provides the oddly touching denouement to "Monster in a Box."

"I am very excited that I will get to quote the critics," says Gray, suddenly enthusiastic. "This is going to be a first, an actor in a show who gets to talk about the critics while they are there sitting on the other side."

Suddenly Gray stands and dumps a pile of pear cores into the kitchen sink. There is a technical rehearsal uptown at the theater in half an hour, and Shafransky, clearly the ballast of the duo, is hurrying him along. But like a man who can't stop talking about himself, Gray hurtles on. "I was brought out to L.A. to do that theater project and a big chunk of it is in this monologue about how I found it difficult to live out there. Why? I don't know if it was an excess of pleasure or a lack of contact with people in arbitrary and chance settings that I devour here in New York.

"One story about L.A. that isn't in the monologue about L.A. was how I was out there for a long time and then I came back and New York looked horrible--no birds, no flowers. It was Mother's Day and I decided I would visit my therapist on 104th Street and Central Park West and I walked from here. And what I discovered was that while New York may not have nature, it has human nature. I spent the whole walk talking randomly with people, fans, friends, strangers. I'm not against L.A. but . . . you have to go there in a car. Nothing is more depressing for me than riding in a car in the dark and looking out at other cars in the dark. That's my version of hell."

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