WALKING into Lincoln Center's well-scrubbed Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater to hear Spalding Gray's new monologue, ``Monster in a Box,'' was a little bit jarring. I'd seen Mr. Gray perform in Lincoln Center before, but I've seen him far more often in the Performing Garage, the dilapidated yet charming - and culturally essential - downtown theater where he did his first important work. In both settings, he confronts his audience directly, chatting casually from a wooden desk, with no onstage props but a glass of water and a looseleaf notebook that he rarely consults. Yet the atmosphere of Lincoln Center is so different from that of the Garage, and of the whole avant-garde scene in which Gray once played such a central role, that one can't help realizing how much times have changed - and wondering whether the changes have been good ones.
Not that there's anything wrong with ``Monster in a Box,'' which stands with Gray's best offerings of this type. It's the story of his effort to write an autobiographical novel called ``Impossible Vacation,'' how the novel grew to an impossible size, and how a string of interruptions kept him from completing it. I'm sure the story is true, since whenever I've talked with Gray in recent years he's immediately mentioned the number of pages - now well into four-digit territory - under his belt so far in this seemingly endless project. The real substance of the monologue, though, is not the novel but the interruptions that interfered with it, ranging from a part in a Whoopi Goldberg movie to a sojourn at a Soviet film festival.
WHAT'S missing in ``Monster in a Box,'' and in all Gray's recent work, is a sense of the restless, questioning, experimental spirit that surged through his career in its earlier years. To explore this a bit, it's worth recalling the genesis of Gray's monologues, which now seem like cozy bits of sit-down comedy but once epitomized a truly radical approach to theater art.
As a member of the Wooster Group (then called the Performance Group) during the 1970s, Gray was a main creator of a trilogy called ``Three Places in Rhode Island.'' The second portion of this work - an overwhelmingly brilliant show called ``Rumstick Rhode,'' about his relationship with his late mother - used direct addresses by Gray to the audience on startlingly personal subjects. The third portion, the equally brilliant ``Nayatt School,'' began in a similar way, and from this came Gray's earliest experiments in pure monologue - performances in which all barriers between performer and audience, including a prerehearsed script, would be eliminated. It's hard to imagine a more drastic questioning of what theater is or ought to be.
In those early days, I remember seeing Gray perform at the Garage for an audience of perhaps a dozen people. Now he's a star of Lincoln Center, the Broadway stage, and HBO, and mainstream audiences can't get enough of him. He has earned his success, and it's good to see a genuine maverick getting such wide recognition. But it would be even better, I can't help feeling, if he'd start questioning this brand of theater as radically and insistently as he once questioned mainstream and avant-garde styles of the past.
``Monster in a Box,'' cleverly directed by Renee Shafransky, continues at Lincoln Center through Jan. 20.