Spalding Gray talks. You could even say he talks for a living. Since he does it on a stage, it's called performance art; he calls what he does a Talking Novel, or Creative Gossip.
Officially he's known as a monologuist, like Ruth Draper or Jean Shepherd, but since the perspective is that of someone who is a "Norman O. Brown-Marcuse leftist," most of the material is not exactly family entertainment. He's not shy talking about anything, be it his girlfriend, adolescent masturbation, drugs, therapy, paranoia, nervous breakdowns, etc. Last night, at the New Playwrights' Theatre, he opened his two-part piece, "Swimming to Cambodia," based on his experience playing a role in "The Killing Fields."
You get the feeling that if this guy wasn't a creative talker, he might be off somewhere babbling to himself. He said he's the kind of person who feels like he disappears if he goes on vacation. His first monologue developed while he was working in a theater in Saratoga, N.Y., and living with a group in a former house of prostitution that was run by a woman who supposedly could contact spirits with a glass.
He would leave to visit his then-girlfriend, Elizabeth LeCompte (now an associate of Peter Sellars' American National Theater), at Skidmore College and talk to her while she worked on art projects. "What was going on was so crazy that I couldn't contain all this information. So I'd tell Liz stories and get it all out." It was years, and a nervous breakdown, before he put his talking on stage, however.
What makes Gray different from the average blabbermouth, and allows you to avoid feeling that the audience is just a substitute for a therapist, is an eye for detail and the ability to weave widely disparate events together. He says things that other people might notice, but never think to repeat: how a man he met on a train had immature ears "like little pasta shells," or that the only thing the American press knew about Lon Nol when they started covering Cambodia was that "Lon Nol spelled backwards spells Lon Nol."
He's not a guy for one-liners. He speaks in paragraphs, one thing leading to another, back and forth, until he's woven a tapestry of ideas, impressions and events. In one piece (he'll be doing six of his pieces during the next four weeks) he interviews audience members, finding out about their lives. His manner is so relaxed and nonjudgmental that people tell him extraordinary things.
Gray is a person to whom things happen. For example, he was walking in the Bowery section of Manhattan on a Sunday morning and found himself in the midst of a group of prostitutes. A car full of Hasidic Jews stopped, and one beckoned. Gray went to see what they wanted and they asked him to get into the car. He did. Another person might have just ignored the summons, and certainly would not have gotten into the car.
The Hasidim asked if he'd like some pizza and beer, and told him they were taking him to a synagogue where they would pay him for cleaning up the back yard. "They thought I was a Bowery bum," Gray said. "By that time I was calling myself 'Pete,' and had a whole story about how I ended up on the streets." But he did the work, and they paid him $10.
"We had to haggle about that. They wanted to pay me $8 and carfare, and I wanted $10 and no carfare. They said I was the first sober Bowery bum they'd had, and asked me if I was going to use the money to go to one of the prostitutes. They told me all about their lives."
That story will end up in a monolgue. Is it true? Probably. But maybe not.
Gray, 44, is graying and balding. Aside from longish hair that curls in a clump at his neck, he could be, say, a Foreign Service officer, which is what he played in "The Killing Fields." He is a sort of renegade prep who went bad in high school. "I was a juvenile delinquent," he says. "I was into petty demolition."
Like setting off cherry bombs behind a toilet in the boys' room. Or breaking off a pencil lead in a lock so that English class would be delayed. Or throwing rotten eggs in the halls. "I was very unhappy," he says. "I didn't like Barrington, Rhode Island."
So his parents sent him to a school in Maine, a place that was private but not exclusive. He was shocked into getting good grades, and by the time he graduated at age 20 he had also discovered theater.
He spent the '60s and '70s working out of the mainstream with the Performance Group and the Wooster Group, as well as more traditional places like the Alley Theater. (Those experiences are discussed in "A Personal History of the American Theatre," which alternates with "Sex and Death at Age 14" between April 23 and 28 at New Playwrights').
In 1967, fed up with theater, he went off to Mexico with LeCompte. While he was away and out of touch, his mother committed suicide, which he learned only after returning to Rhode Island at the end of his several-month sojourn. He remembers drinking tequila from a bottle in a brown paper bag while his father drove him home from the airport, asking, "How's Mom?" and hearing his father say, "She's gone."
"I thought: 'She's died of a broken heart.' I had an image of a dandelion at the end of August, blown around by the wind." His father handled grief by focusing on practical details, telling him such things as how many gallons it took to fill the gas tank in the car after his mother had asphyxiated herself. "For nine years I was depressed."
In 1976, after a grueling tour of India with the Performance Group, he had a nervous breakdown, exacerbated by hyperglycemia. "At first I was hyper and up for 20 hours at a time, then I slept for 19 hours a day. The phoenix that rose from the ashes was 'Rumstick Road.' " That was his first formal monologue, part of a trilogy about his childhood and New England.
His income has quadrupled in the last year. After getting the part in "The Killing Fields," he hired an agent, thinking he'd do more movies. At the time he'd had to have a throat operation from talking so much, so the eight weeks he spent in Thailand shooting the film felt like a "paid vacation."
But Gray is rather an oddity in Hollywood, and no doubt a frustration to his agent. "She said, 'We've got to make you a career in films,' and I said I was just getting to the point with my monologues where I could make $1,000 a night sometimes. And she said, 'Excuse me for laughing, but we're talking about $30,000 a week.' " He says he blew an audition for the new television series "Hail to the Chief," and doesn't feel good about his audition for "Mr. Sunshine," produced by Henry Winkler, an old friend, a projected TV show about a blind college professor. "I went into this meeting and Henry said to the other guys, 'this man stands naked in front of the audience.' And there was no sense of irony present in the room. I think they thought I really am naked. I said, Henry, I sit, I sit."
He didn't hit it off with the "Tonight" show either. He told the people who were interviewing him for the show a story "about my first sensual girlfriend," which involved his being in a play by Molie re and making love in front of a fire, and they said, " 'Don't say Molie re, Johnny hates theater. And don't forget you're talking to an audience that wants to go to sleep.' They said if I could keep my language clean and my stories lighter I could go on the show."
You get the idea that Gray doesn't really want to be in a television sitcom or on the "Tonight" show, but he can't resist the invitations. And it certainly makes for good stories.
"I always have the sense of observing myself . . . I only lose that sense of self when I take drugs, which I do rarely . . . or when I'm on stage performing. And once when this enormous rat jumped on my chest . . ."