SPALDING GRAY -- The Year of Spalding Famously

Spalding Gray is living proof that you don't have to be crazy to be a good artist. He's been there and back, and he's better than ever. Gray has been a fixture on the Soho arts scene since 1979 when he catapulted out of the Wooster Group (then called the Performance Group) into a solo career, performing autobiographical monologues at once comic and scary. Witnessing his confessions was like watching someone unravel in public -- this guy was clearly on the edge, barely masking his inner turbulence with the polished demeanor of a veteran performer. But five years of honing his monologues before audiences in Soho and on tour have transformed him from a borderline urban victim into an underground celebrity, and now he's on the verge of something more than cult acclaim. Two videotapes about him will premiere at the Kitchen on Sunday, November 11 -- Bruce and Norman Yonemoto's Spalding Gray's Map of L.A., shot while he was performing in the Olympic Arts Festival's "Carplays" series with Marshal Efron and Mary Woronov, and Renee Shafransky's Gray Areas, a documentary of his recent tour of Grange halls and senior-citizen drop-in centers throughout New England. And he makes his film debut in The Killing Fields, Roland Joffe's staggering portrait of the friendship between two journalists during the fall of Cambodia.

Gray has a small part in the movie, playing the assistant to the American ambassador at the time of the evacuation of Phnom Penh in 1975. But the experience of spending two months in Thailand, hobnobbing with famous actors and journalists while recreating one of the most horrifying bloodbaths in recent history, becomes the basis of Gray's ninth and most ambitious monologue, the two-part Swimming to Cambodia, which opens this week at the Performing Garage.

From the beginning, Gray's monologues drew inspiration from such intensely personal artistic endeavors as Yvonne Rainer's filmed journals and the confessional journalism associated with "The Me Decade," but they went beyond the merely personal and confessional in self-exposure. Three Places in Rhode Island, the Wooster/Performance Group's trilogy of multimedia theater pieces composed over a period of four years by Gray with Elizabeth LeCompte was based on Spalding's WASP upbringing. The middle section, Rumstick Road, explicitly evoked his mother who, after her first nervous breakdown, had a vision of Christ, became a Christian Scientist, and, after her second breakdown, committed suicide in 1967. The monologues sprang from a clinical self-vigilance compounded by an extreme case of actor's narcissism. The first two, Sex and Death to the Age 14 and Booze, Cars, and College Girls, were much less harrowing than the Rhode Island trilogy, partly because they dealt with childhood experiences that anyone could relate to, and partly because Gray was such a delightful performer: disarming in his candor, self-mocking in his humor, thrillingly precise in his timing and choice of detail -- qualities that characterize his work to this day.

It wasn't until his third monologue, India (and After), a fractured free-association on his own nervous collapse after touring India with the Performance Group's Mother Courage in 1976, that the root of 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 background in the '60s, participated in the life and death of the counterculture, and finally internalized the post-Watergate national trauma: they felt stranded in history, alienated, lacking any sense of collective or individual identity. That common malaise, sharpened by Spalding Gray's specific terror of following his mother's example, of simply disappearing into his own lack of faith in the world, found expression and balm in the "talking cure" in which he dispelled his fears by admitting them before witnesses.

If the early monologues succeeded in keeping Gray from pitching himself into the abyss he circled so precariously, they also bolstered his ego by drawing the kind of personal following rarely seen in avant-garde circles. There was an undeniably impressive aesthetic foundation to the work. Unlike his colleagues in the Wooster Group and Mabou Mines, whose experimentation took them further into high-tech performance, Gray reclaimed the ancient art of storytelling, simply sitting at a desk and addressing an attentive audience in the intimacy of the Performing Garage. Even so, his new few monologues, including A Personal History of the American Theater, Nobody Ever Wanted to Sit Behind a Desk, and 47 Beds, were clearly crowd-pleasers -- up-to-the-minute topical, brimming with hilarious stories, downright titillating in their candor (Spalding in a sensory deprivation tank, Spalding having a homosexual experience in Greece).

As the confidence of being an esteemed solo performer -- a (gasp) popular entertainer -- replaced the genuine grappling for a sense of self that originally sparked Gray's public autobiography, his monologues were beginning to describe experiences less buried in the past. And because he had nothing to hide behind -- no script, no characters, no philosophy like the credo of style espoused by Quentin Crisp, who strikes me as the performer most comparable to Spalding Gray -- even he began to feel he was using himself up at a dangerously rapid pace. When Aperture magazine commissioned him to accompany photographer Randal Levenson to the 1981 Tennessee State Fair, the resulting monologue In Search of the Monkey Girl (later published), proved Gray to be an excellent reporter in his combination of sympathy and mania for details. His unhesitating identification with carnies and sideshow freaks stripped the prose of squeamishness, sentimentality, or sensationalism; for a moment, he made you contemplate the tranquil domesticity of Emmett the Alligator Man and Priscilla the Monkey girl rather than viewing them as nature's mistakes. Even his confessional monologues reveal Spalding as the kind of guy who converses with the craziest street people in Washington Square as kindred spirits, who doesn't ask questions when a carful of Chassids mistakes him for a Bowery bum on Sunday morning and whisks him off to Brooklyn to rake leaves for ten bucks and a beer.

Gray's energetic curiosity (an ingrained form of actor research, maybe) was the key to Interviewing the Audience, which he began performing in 1982 and has toured the country with ever since, drawing others into his philosophical obsessions (is there a heaven? does true love exist?) and imparting to unbelievers the rewards of the examined life. During that time, he channeled his confessional impulses into quasi-autobiographical writing. He had never written his monologues beforehand but performed them from an outline of key words and phrases. Taking time out to work on his prose (at Edward Albee's writers' workshop in Montauk, among other places) introduced Gray to the joys of structural thinking he'd always appreciated in a director like Liz LeCompte but had avoided as an intuitive performer.

Still, writing in solitude and interviewing other people don't stir the blood like making an audience laugh. Spalding was really getting itchy to perform, even act in other people's work for the first time in years, when The Killing Fields came along. The film was perfect grist for a monologue, and Swimming to Cambodia exercises all of Spalding Gray's muscles -- as a writer, reporter, and performer.

Sitting down at his desk in front of a map of Southeast Asia, wearing a plaid shirt and blue jeans, he begins, "Saturday, June 18, 1983, Hua Hin, Gulf of Thailand." His girlfriend Renee is visiting the set of The Killing Fields for two weeks, expecting Spalding to come back with her to their summer house upstate in Krumville, but Spalding wants to stay because he hasn't had a "perfect moment" in Thailand yet, so Renee insists, "Either you marry me or give me a date when you're returning!" From there, Gray zigzags through his far-flung adventures with the speed and agility of an Indy 500 driver on the San Diego Freeway. How he got the role turns into a capsule history of the war in Cambodia (from Prince Sihanouk to Pol Pot, with stops at Operation Breakfast and Kent State). Bangkok is not just the place where Thomas Merton stepped out of the bathtub and got electrocuted by an electric fan, "which Judith Malina says was a CIA plot," but it's also the center of a thriving sex industry featuring live shows in which "women do everything with their vaginas except have babies." A scene of helicopters evacuating Phnom Penh filmed in Camp Pendleton, where the crew members wore T-shirts saying "Skip the dialogue, let's blow something up," swoops to the real evacuation of Phnom Penh and the slaughter of somewhere between one and three million Cambodians according to the Khmer Rouge doctrine "Better kill an innocent person than leave an enemy alive." Shooting 66 takes until three in the morning to get four lines right, Spalding wonders why he feels so exhausted, and understands, for a moment, what killed Marilyn Monroe.

And that's just part one.

On its own modest scale, Swimming to Cambodia is as compelling a piece of work as The Killing Fields. Because he was on the fringes of the movie, Gray's Mailer-as-Ishmael account fills in many historical and on-the-scene details the movie leaves unexplained or undigested. And his carefully developed expertise at narrative compression and well-paced storytelling renders a multilayered historical event comprehensible in the context of one man's day. None of the research cribbed from William Shawcross's Sideshow pinpoints the clash of barbarism and civilization more vividly than an anecdote about feuding with upstairs neighbors who play their stereo too loud; a chance meeting with a coked-up sailor stationed on a nuclear submarine confirms our most paranoids dreams about military insanity.

The second part of the new work subordinates Spalding-Gray-the- reporter to the Spalding Gray familiar from earlier monologues, whom the artist describes as "a combination of Huck Finn and Candide -- the kind of naive, open, slightly paranoid, often horny searcher." Along with ruthlessly candid tales of his ever-adolescent pleasure-seeking and clumsy, even callous dealings with women, Gray ponders the future of his career. While the aftermath of Cambodia meant a Pulitzer Prize and  big movie sale for Sydney Schanberg, Spalding's rewards are more modestly and predictably self-deflating. As he says in the monologue, he got an agent, tried out for The Karate Kid and Hill Street Blues, and went to the wire with Dick Shawn for the role of Patty Duke's husband in Hail to the Chief, a new TV sitcom about the first woman president.

Offstage and on, Gray is as ambivalent about his "career" as he is about getting married and raising a family. He'd like to parlay his reputation as a comic performer into stage and (especially) film roles, but nothing is more satisfying -- or, when it comes down to it, more necessary -- than his own work. When he could have been out on the Coast meeting and greeting himself into guest shots on St. Elsewhere, he was visiting paper mills and boarding schools in rural Massachusetts trying to coax regular people into seeing their own lives as a history worth putting into words. Judging from the video Gray Areas, as well as the monologue Travels Through New England (which premiered last month at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge), the tour was something of a bust. Questions to the audience about love and sex got one-word answers, wile religion and politics were strictly off-limits. For these tight-lipped New Englanders, Gray laments, "There is no history, only television."

But for me that kind of response to Interviewing the Audience further emphasizes the formidable craft involved. Observing life-as-it-is- being-lived isn't as easy as Gray makes it look. Moreover the difficult others have attesting to their own experience underscores the moral dimension of Gray's self-exploration. At a time when mass media and the microchip efficiently plot the ultimate devaluation of idiosyncratic humanity, there's something exemplary, even radical, about promoting the art of paying attention to every little thing. His clinical desperation may be under control, but there's still a doomsday feeling to Spalding Gray's work that insists there's no time left for anything less than total honesty. Our history is now, and you don't have to be crazy to say so.

The Village Voice, November 13, 1984