Listening to Spalding Gray could become an addiction, even though (or maybe because) he blithely violates all the canons that are supposed to make for good conversation.
The 43-year-old monologuist talks nonstop about himself, where he's been, what happened to him and whom he met along the way, and what it all reminds him of. He talks frankly about his dreams, his fantasies, his sexual escapades.
He may have been born a New Englander, but he's long since banished any vestiges of New England reserve. He is his own inexhaustible subject. To Isherwood's "I am a camera," Gray might well retort, "And I am a tape recorder."
For his third week at the New Playwrights' Theatre, Gray is recounting his "Travels Through New England -- Spring '84," a trip he undertook under the auspices of the New England Council for the Arts. His purpose in visiting the dozen or so towns on his itinerary, where he was often billed as "a world-famous talk-show host," was to conduct live public interviews with the more colorful denizens. ("Interviewing the Audience," Gray calls it, and he'll be doing it next week at New Playwrights' as well.)
There is very little, however, that does not serve as grist for Gray's mill, and he has turned his odyssey into a high-spirited monologue that makes New England seem as exotic and surrealistic as Thailand. Where most of us would hear only the din in a barroom, his "Venus' flytrap ears" pick up the oddly revelatory comment, while his eyes naturally focus in on the bizarre -- a piece of graffiti on a rest room wall, the detritus on Jack Kerouac's grave or the logo on the hat of a senior citizen.
He visits a re-creation of Plymouth Colony, where the actors hired to play Pilgrims insist on speaking old English to him. When he tries to leave a note for a pal, they inform him that only Pastor Bradford can read. In Provincetown, he visits a friend who, in the name of art, has covered a car with sand and his TV set with popcorn. He hits Lawrence, Mass., on the very day it is voted the worst place in the United States to live. Portsmouth, N.H., he discovers, has become yuppie heaven. ("It was raining white wine and broccoli quiche.") Hitchhiking, he is picked up by an Amway salesman with "GO FOR IT" on his license plates. In Hardwick, Vt., he meets a woman who left a convent in Southern California after 32 years to become a cross-country ski instructor.
It may be a 9-to-5 world for the rest of us, but for Gray, it is a round-the-clock funhouse, a hall of mirrors, one mad maze after another. With a torrent of talk, he burrows under the apparent homogeneity of American life to reveal marvels and curiosities as astonishing as any Alice encountered in Wonderland. His vision, as entertaining as it is idiosyncratic, has the effect of renewing yours.
"Travels Through New England" plays through Saturday.