New York — I first heard Spalding Gray do one of his unique monologues several years ago, when he was still inventing this new theatrical form. There were only a handful of people present, and his own theater group was skeptical about the idea of charging money to see a lone performer sit behind a table and talk without a script. Things were different when I went to Mr. Gray's latest monologue, ``Swimming to Cambodia,'' not long ago. A spirited crowd packed the Performing Garage (his home base) and hung on every word. In an Off Off Broadway kind of way, he has become a star. Which raises the biggest question of all about his work:
Is it art or is it (shudder) entertainment?
Gray himself doesn't know for sure. His background is rooted in art of the most stringent sort. Yet the group's movement to complexity was what made Gray yearn more than ever for direct and intimate contact with his audience. His first monologue was, in its minimal way, as radical as his elaborate group projects -- an attempt to confront the audience with no props or supports except his own personality, his skill as a talker, and the trove of memories and fantasies that he has always been willing to share with the world at a moment's notice.
In later monologues he developed new subject matter, going beyond childhood experiences to stories from his adult life and acting career. His manner became more assured and his anecdotes more polished, especially after a few trial runs smoothed them out. The radical edge of his work receded to the background as he refined his image as a raconteur and sit-down comedian.
In short, his shows did become (gasp) entertainment. Yet such exhilarating entertainment is surely art -- giving this unique performer, and his growing audience, the best of both worlds.
``Swimming to Cambodia'' carries Gray's ambiguous feelings about experimental vs. commercial acting into new territory. It all began when, to his own surprise, this mainstay of the theatrical fringe got a part in a real movie-movie, playing an American official in ``The Killing Fields.'' This meant a trip to Thailand, where the film was shot, and a long list of professional and personal adventures ranging from the glamorous and exotic to the sleazy and bizarre.
We hear about all of them in his new monologue, which uses the most commercial experience of his career as raw material for his own brand of many-layered storytelling. Gray, like Joseph Heller, makes huge leaps in time and space within single paragraphs, sentences, even phrases. The jumps are largely intuitive, but they add density and surprise to the tales-within-tales he spins so easily. They also mirror the cheerful clutter of his loquacious personality.
Including material as different as Vietnam-war horrors and Gray's tussles with noisy neighbors back home, ``Swimming to Cambodia'' is packed with incidents and details -- some so personal and even confessional that they'd seem strained or embarrassing from the lips of a performer who doesn't love self-revelation as much as Gray always has. Other moments include rough language and raunchy details that would earn the show an R rating if it were a movie. Gray's good humor is always in evidence, though, along with his good faith in the power of words to hold a stage all by themselves. There's no performer quite like him, and he's near the peak of his powers in his latest work.
After finishing its Performing Garage run in January, the two-part ``Swimming to Cambodia'' moved to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles for a month. Its next stop will be the New Performance Gallery in San Francisco where it is now now running through March 24. Other engagements include April 7 and tentatively April 11-13 at On the Boards in Seattle; May 15-17 at the Painted Bird Performance Space in Philadelphia; May 21-24 at the ICA in London; and an extended run is tentatively set for the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Mass., starting next October.
Gray will also present his ``Interviewing the Audience'' in Portland, Ore., on March 28; at On the Boards from April 4-6; and at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C., from April 9-10. Gray engagements including ``Swimming to Cambodia'' and other works will be given at the New Playwrights' Theater in Washington, D.C., from April 16-May 12 and at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis from May 28-June 9.