He has conducted fact-finding missions to ''golden age'' homes for senior citizens in New England, to brothels in Thailand and to sensory-deprivation tanks in California. He has delighted audiences in German beer halls, in Australian theaters and on public television. But until now, Spalding Gray has never displayed his brand of solo performance in a mainstream theater in New York City, where he has lived for more than 20 years. That will change this week when Mr. Gray temporarily forsakes his headquarters at SoHo's Performing Garage to begin a monthlong run at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, thereby joining the ranks of artists such as Laurie Anderson, Eric Bogosian and Whoopi Goldberg, who have emerged from avant-garde performing spaces to attract a wider audience.
Since 1979, when he catapulted out of the experimental acting ensemble of the Wooster Group to a solo career performing autobiographical monologues, Spalding Gray has become internationally recognized as a hybrid of performance artist and stand-up comedian. He presents in his monologues a vastly entertaining persona, which he describes as ''a combination of Huck Finn and Candide -the kind of naive, open, slightly paranoid, often
In an age dominated by high-tech performance, Mr. Gray has reclaimed the ancient art of storytelling, simply sitting at a desk and addressing an intimate audience directly. At Lincoln Center, he will perform three of the 11 monologues in his repertory. They include his earliest monologue, ''Sex and Death to the Age 14,'' his most recent, ''Terrors of Pleasure'' (which begins the series this Wednesday), and what is generally acknowledged as his best, ''Swimming to Cambodia,'' an account of his experience acting in the film ''The Killing Fields.''
The form Mr. Gray has evolved for his monologues - he calls it ''poetic journalism'' - places him at the center of a maelstrom of events and forces him to make sense of it all. His expertise at narrative compression and well-paced storytelling makes it possible for a listener to comprehend a multilayered historical event in the context of one man's day. In this, he invites comparison to performance artist Laurie Anderson, who embraces the image of herself as a satellite dish collecting data from every corner of contemporary culture and translating it into serio-comic songs and stories about the human struggle to survive in an increasingly threatening technological landscape.
Mr. Gray's detailed self-analyses also invite charges of self-indulgence, which leave him unruffled. ''When anyone refers to my work as self-indulgent, I take it to mean it just wasn't interesting for them,'' he says. ''I think there are positive aspects to solipsism and narcissism, and I'm interested in putting myself into more rigorous objective situations in order to get beyond my own neurosis.''
From the beginning, Mr. Gray's monologues drew inspiration from such intensely personal artistic endeavors as Yvonne Rainer's filmed journals and the confessional pop journalism associated with ''the Me Decade.'' But they went beyond the merely personal in their nearly pathological obsession with self-exposure. Witnessing his confessions was like watching someone unravel in public, barely masking his inner turbulence with the polished demeanor of a veteran performer. The monologues he performed in ''Three Places in Rhode Island,'' the autobiographical trilogy he created in collaboration with the Wooster Group, sprang from a clinical self-vigilance compounded by an extreme case of actor's narcissism.
His first two solo monologues, ''Sex and Death to the Age 14'' and ''Booze, Cars and College Girls,'' were less harrowing, since they dealt with childhood experiences anyone could relate to. It wasn't until the third monologue, ''India (and After),'' a fractured free-association on his nervous breakdown after touring India in 1976, that the root of Mr. Gray's compulsion to confess himself in front of an audience became clear. Part of his desperation was shared with an entire generation of young Americans who rejected their middle-class backgrounds in the 1960's, participated in the life and death of the counterculture, and finally internalized the national trauma that was Watergate; they felt alienated, without a sense of collective or individual identity.
That common malaise, sharpened by Mr. Gray's specific terror of following the suicidal example of his mother, found expression - and release - in the ''talking cure,'' in which he dispelled his fears by admitting them before witnesses. ''Recycling negative experience is one of the things the monologues are about,'' he says. ''I go out and digest what could be disturbing situations and convert them into humor in front of an audience.''
Those early monologues also bolstered Mr. Gray's ego by drawing the kind of personal following rarely seen in avant-garde circles. Subsequent monologues became downright crowd-pleasers, but he worried that he was using himself up at a dangerously rapid pace and turned his attention outward for a change. When he accompanied a photographer to the 1981 Tennessee State Fair, the resulting monologue, ''In Search of the Monkey Girl,'' proved Mr. Gray to be an excellent reporter in his personal empathy and mania for details. His energetic curiosity was the key to ''Interviewing the Audience,'' which he began performing in 1982. He has toured this piece frequently since then, drawing others into his philosophical obsessions - is there a heaven? does true love exist? - and imparting to unbelievers the rewards of the examined life.
When he was invited to play a small part in ''The Killing Fields,'' Mr. Gray suspected it would be perfect grist for a monologue. Indeed, the experience of spending two months in Thailand, hobnobbing with famous actors and journalists while re-creating one of the most horrifying bloodbaths in recent history, became the basis of his most ambitious monologue so far. Because he was on the fringes of the film, ''Swimming to Cambodia'' fills in many historical and on-the-scene details the movie leaves out. In ''Terrors of Pleasure,'' his most recent monologue, Mr. Gray relates his misadventures looking for work as an actor in Hollywood to get the money to fix up a ''disaster house'' he bought in the Catskills with his girlfriend, the independent film producer Renee Shafransky.
Mr. Gray doesn't feel that his peripatetic nature or his far-flung adventures are necessarily unique to him. In many ways, he says, they are universal. ''There are two audiences for my work,'' he says. ''There are people who live in the kind of life I have. They're very unrooted, they do a lot of different things, and they experience the world as fragmented. The other extreme is the householder who's my age now'' - Mr. Gray is 44 - ''who's right in the midst of raising two or three children, who's keeping down a job, and who's able to enjoy the stories vicariously, the same way he would Kerouac's 'On the Road.'
''What they have in common is an interest in sharing stories,'' he continues. ''That's what the whole personal-history thing is about for me. When you're traveling, there's a chain of stories that replaces, or complements, the newspaper. When I was in Australia, I met a woman who'd gotten obsessed with Cambodia. She claims the Russians are practicing nerve and gas warfare through the Vietnamese on the Cambodians. That's one story you're not going to read in the press because there's no credibility.''
''Poetic journalist'' isn't Spalding Gray's only occupation these days. He still considers himself an actor; he has a leading role in ''True Stories,'' a film to be released this fall directed by David Byrne of the rock group Talking Heads. Mr. Gray recently made his debut as a playwright; when he was asked to adapt one of Chekhov's short stories for the Acting Company's production ''Orchards,'' he came up with ''Rivkala's Ring,'' which has been singled out for praise by a number of reviewers. And he has surprised himself by becoming a published author; the text to ''Swimming to Cambodia'' sold out its first printing of 5,000 copies, and Random House is bringing out a volume of five other monologues next month.
There is no substitute, however, for live performing. ''Nothing makes me happier than writing three hours a day and then getting on with whatever else I have to do,'' says Mr. Gray. ''But the monologues come out of a compulsion, an obsessive need to tell a story. And experiences keep coming up that need to be told.''
New York Times, May 11, 1986