Spalding Gray made a discovery last night: interviewing journalists is not a very rewarding proposition.
The intrepid monologuist, who has been weaving verbal webs at New Playwrights' Theatre for the last three weeks, opened his final sally last night, a curious exercise called "Interviewing the Audience." What he does is literally that: plucking people from the crowd and bringing them on stage to answer questions under the glare of lights and the stares of their fellows. Normally he chats with people in the lobby before the show, asking those that strike his fancy if they would object to being summoned.
But for the Washington debut of this piece, Gray was confronted with an extraordinary crowd -- an invitation-only audience of board members, money givers, public figures and other power people -- who were given a champagne reception at the Jefferson Hotel and then bused to the theater.
"This could be weird," said Gray during the reception. "With everyone drinking champagne . . . "
Weird it was. The first person Gray invited to the stage was journalist Betty Beale, who chronicled social doings for The Washington Star for 35 years and now writes a syndicated column. "I cover things that happen after 6," she said coyly, after insisting that Gray change seats with her so that her "good" side would face the audience.
Gray barely laid a glove on Beale. She came forth with witty anecdotes about the presidents and other world figures she has known since Harry Truman days. Gray, a self-professed ignoramus about anything remotely political, appeared fascinated by Beale's commentary, but to a Washington audience it was, as a later interviewee put it, "stale." When Beale began talking about how hard it is to reduce the federal budget, the programs began to rustle and people started shifting in their seats.
The one moment of surprise came when Gray asked her if she went to church, and discovered she was a Christian Scientist. Since Gray himself was raised in that church, he seized upon this nugget with zest, but Beale was having none of it. "We're getting too personal," she said sternly. "Let's talk about Washington."
Beale was followed by Washington Post political writer James R. Dickenson, who was also witty and articulate. But both journalists were too self-possessed, too familiar with speaking before people, and "Interviewing the Audience" became "Meet the Press," and the dramatic tension that might come from someone saying something unexpected never materialized.
The only "plain" person of the evening was Bettie Randall Reilly, an organizational psychologist, who was poised but not above giggling. She talked, with probing from Gray, about her mixed racial parentage and her two marriages.
The final subject was David Warrilow, an actor Gray knows from their common past with avant-garde theater in New York, who is here to be in "The Count of Monte Cristo" at the American National Theater. Much of the conversation was interesting, particularly when the 50-year-old Warrilow revealed that he has only recently been able to perform sober. But when Gray led him into a discussion of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness, in which Warrilow is an enthusiast, the talk took on the dull discomfort of listening to someone describe the dream he had the previous night.
The beauty of "Interviewing the Audience" is that the material changes every night. And if Gray is smart he'll forget about the Washington "insiders" and search out the ordinary folk.
"Interviewing the Audience" runs through Sunday.