The stage career of Spalding Gray has blossomed in two different directions, and it's hard to say which is more amazing. On one hand, he has joined with director Elizabeth LeCompte in developing a series of plays based on his own autobiography. He isn't just the star of these shows, he's the main character, too.
Meanwhile, as these works became more elaborate and sophisticated, Gray felt the need for a renewed immediacy in his contact with the audience. The result was a series of "monologues" in which he confronts his spectators directly, without so much as a script --just a list of memories or associations based on some period in his life. rarely has the theater seen such a radical simplicity.
This season Gray has been hard at work on both phases of his career. With his colleagues in the Wooster Group (formerly the Performance Group) he is appearing in a restaged version of their multimedia spectacular, "Point Judith." In the same building -- his home base, the PErforming Garage -- he is performing his latest monolgue, "A Personal History of the American Theater." And another monolgue, "Nobody Wanted to Sit Behind a Desk," recently ended a run at the dance Theater Workshop.
Of these, the most extravagant is "Point Judith," an epilogue to the celebrated Gray-LeCompte trilogy, "Three Places in Rhode Island." As usual in these plays, the subject matter is based on Gray's life story -- focusing this time on the rites, rituals, madnesses, and sadnesses of middle-class family life.
Though this material has a lot of emotional force, Gray and LeCompte give it a highly stylized treatment. the show opens with a drama about an oil rig, and closes with a movie that transports us to New England. In between comes a slapstick production of "Long Day's Journey Into Night," condensed to about 15 minutes -- surely the shortest and funniest version of this classic ever staged!
What does it all mean? In part, it's a meditation on Gray's life story. He did grow up in New England, and during his days as a conventional actor, he actually appeared in "Long Day's Journey." HE also feels strong parallels between his own family (offstage characters in the show) and the figures in Eugene O'Neill's tragedy.
Then too, "Point Judith" explores the relationship between Gray as performer and Gray as autobiographer. There are times when he is merely an observer, like the audience. And there are times when he becomes deeply involved in the procedings, as when he acts as a frantic traffic of cop for the miserable machinations of O'Neill's troubled Tyrone family.
Finally, the show is an exploration of masculinity. While the "Rhode Island" trilogy centered on images of Gray's mother, "Point Judith" probes traditional stereotypes of male roles -- from the tyrannical Tyrone to the comically boorish oilmen who stupidly brawl and cuss on the Performing Garage stage.
These many elements are not welded together as seamlessly as in the brilliant "Rhode Island" pieces, "Rumstick Road" and "Nayatt School." the show has a somewhat abstracted quality, as director LeCompte pulls her material (supplied by Gray and the other performers) into righly imaginative new forms. By turns hilarious and obscure, splendiferous and transcedent, "Point Judith" is a nonstop evening of emotional and intellectual action. If you like adventure in the theater, it's a show not to be missed. 'Personal Theater History'
Gray's latest solo work is indeed "A Personal History of the American Theater" -- an hour's worth of memories and associations, spurred by the titles of the 47 plays he appeared in between 1960 and 1970.
In his "voice pieces," Gray runs the risk of becoming a sit-down comedian -- a mere storyteller with a collection of colorful anecdotes. He combats this by introducing a deliberate element of chance in some of his monolgues (responding to randomly chosen words, for example) and by continually widening his repertoire.
His new "Personal History" has less freshness, less sense of risk than his earlier solos. It's a routine. But it works, and it would probably be silly to tamper with it. Meanwhile, it picks up an extra level of depth and impact from its insight into the 1960s -- not on the political plane so beloved by some of todays playwrights, but on the personal plane that we actually lived through. "A Personal History" marks another step by Gray into the terrain of sociopolitical reporting, enriched by the personal revelations that have peppered nearly all his work.
The same mixture was apparent in his other recent monologue. "Nobody Wanted to Sit Behind a Desk." As if to illustrate the idiossyncracy of Gray's highly individualized work, this show changed drastically while it was still in the planning stage. It was originally a "movement piece" about Gray's father, but by the time it opened, it had somehow become a verbal reflection on a recent cross-country trip. It's packed with humor and atmosphere, delivered at a frantic page, with a few perfectly chosen movements, props, and gestures.
In sum, it's "how I spent my summer vacation" elevated to the realm of art. And at the end of the evening, a poignant and uproariously funny coda about Gray's elusive father brings us gently back to earth -- closing the excursion with a masterful touch of the profoundly personal sharingm that is the unique hallmark of all Gray's work.