Spalding Gray, the noted monologist, is pacing around a Park Central hotel room at eleven o'clock in the morning, looking thoroughly Protestant and faintly deranged: socks without shoes, dirty khaki pants, a rumpled and deeply stained blue cotton shirt. The room is a pocket-size arena of chaos -- the bed is unmade, the floor is littered with food crumbs, the phone rings incessantly -- as Gray mills about in classic WASP style, rife with rampant anxiety. In town to perform Gray's Anatomy for the Miami Light Project, he keeps looking out wistfully over the ocean, eager to get some sun. An early riser, Gray has already conducted two other interviews and has taken a "mild dose of lithium" with a hit of Klopin: "I'm prone to depression in general, and very susceptible to seasonal changes. My psychopharmacist diagnosed me as a 'panic-depressive' personality. Klopin is supposed to stablize you without any side effects. I'm not sure it's working."
Gray settles down briefly, gets up from his chair for another phone call, and then returns to the endless stream of talk he uses to both dazzle and distance others. The monologue keeps the looming void at bay, imposes structure, meaning, and sense to his existence, makes his life truly come alive. His unconsciousness is leaking all over the place as we discuss his nocturnal plans ("I get very manic during the monologue and it's very hard to come down, so I usually wind up taking a few drinks") and his unlikely career, mining a curious psychic wellspring of polite madness.
Gray was raised in Barrington, Rhode Island, with his two brothers, Channing and Rockwell, Jr., now a music critic and literature professor respectively. In 1967 his mother killed herself at the age of 52, a tragedy he has movingly examined in various monologues and his novel Impossible Vacation. Drinking also figured in family life: Gray once had 54 drinks a week to his father's 28, although he stopped for awhile after the eye operation that serves as a loose framework for Gray's Anatomy. Since the seriously downtown Wooster Group days of his first monologue, Sex and Death to the Age 14, Gray has gone on to create twelve other pieces, filling larger venues and having several monologues made into movies. He works constantly, another manifestation of a manic personality.
"From here, I go to Yale and Burlington, Vermont, where I get to go skiing -- a new thing for me -- which really focuses the brain," he says. "I used to take long walks, but in Sumatra I walked across this volcanic lake for eight hours in bad shoes and wrecked my heel, developed a calcium spur. When I'm physically wiped out, completely exhausted, I find that makes me lose my neurosis. Usually I only feel completely present doing four things: skiing, taking drugs or drinking, having sex, engaged in a monologue on stage. Two or three are at least healthy, although sex isn't so much any more. *This tour goes through Texas and out to the West Coast, all the way up to Portland, Oregon, and then back to Lincoln Center in June. Right in the middle of it all I've got to go to Malaysia for this secret film John Boorman is shooting about the student uprisings in Burma. We have to go in pretending to be tourists to avoid the government. I've been in some real doozies -- Straight Talk with Dolly Parton, Clara's Heart with Whoopi Goldberg -- but the projects are getting better. I was Steven Soderbergh's first choice for a part in King of the Hill. He recognized the sadness and despair that underlies my work and wanted that to come out.
"I would love to experience the elation, the high, of true manic depression. I keep working, save my money, because I always think I'll dry up and there'll never be another monologue. Fiction and anything outside of myself doesn't save me; I always need to keep having more insights and experiences, feeding the monologues. This past summer was very turbulent: My father died, my therapist died, and as I reached the age my mother was when she killed herself, I kept fantasizing about suicide, as if she were pulling me on to join her. The circumstances were entirely different -- she was a Christian Scientist going through menopause, a woman who'd had shock treatments but didn't believe in medication -- but still, it was a powerful temptation."
The monologue waxes on as we consider how to divert the endless flow with some unpublished information gleaned from sources in the culturati set. During Gray's last visit to Miami for Monster in a Box, he and long-time companion Renee Shafransky -- who has directed some of his pieces and has been featured often in the monologues -- had dinner with a friend of ours, talking openly about how they were trying to have a child by artificial insemination. Shortly afterward Gray reluctantly married Shafransky: "She wanted it, and I thought of marriage as a gift to her." Since then he has fathered a son by another woman. The boy is now seventeen months old; both mother and child accompanied Gray on this particular trip. Gray is momentarily derailed when we ask if being a father saved him from suicide, obviously uncomfortable with real life being introduced without the workings of the monologue process. An awkward moment, and then he focuses in like a laser beam:
"Being a father was part of not killing myself. I flipped out at first, couldn't even see the baby. It's a pretty sordid soap opera, obviously, with him in the star role. Renee and I still work together, but we've separated and don't live together any more. My therapist, strangely enough, could always see the child in me, and actually called me by my son's name sometimes. He was a great believer in transference therapy, and kept insisting I could have both women and the child. But of course he was European.
"My son has become an Oz to me, a combination of the angelic and devilish, and I see myself in him completely. As a bonding experience, I took him out to my country house by myself, having my first bloody mary, him playing at my feet like a dog. And then I was on the floor with him, and five hours went by, letting him take peas out of my mouth like a mother bird. Then that instinctive straight arm, that pushing away of his father, and I thought to myself, 'Good for you.' Incredible. Maybe my next monologue will be about fatherhood."
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Later that night Gray takes the stage at the Colony Theater, roaming over "the Bermuda triangle of health," women having orgasms by astral projection, the interconnectedness of meat, alcohol, and sex. It all ties in neatly at the end, unlike real life, closing with a bit about his wedding party in the Hamptons. Somehow the jokes about the claustrophobic specter of marriage no longer seem quite as entertaining: Art and journalism depend upon voraciousness and limited truth. On the whole, however, the performance is yet another triumph of art over real life: funnier than the off-stage Spalding Gray, even more self-centered than his other work, positively brilliant in stretches. Like most people, especially most performers, Gray is better as a concept than a living, breathing being.
At the postperformance reception afterward, Gray knocks back beer at Lyon Freres and negotiates his besotted fans: "Creative people think in nonlinear terms, don't you think?" "How much do you charge as an actor? I've got a project." The ambiance is eerily like a strained English department faculty reception: earnest people with quiet habits clustering around the visiting genius, Antonio Salieri mute before the cruel brilliance of Mozart. Gray is undeniably fucked up, half-mad, and given to epic indulgences, but then again, he's out there climbing into the stratosphere. The shining star of downtown culture, emerging from the maw of narcissism, the modern nebulous prison that encircles us all. It's a fairly lame scene, but Gray looks content, a line from the morning's dialogue capturing the conundrum of fame: "When I'm alone, I feel like I'm disappearing. But I have such a sense of intimacy with my audience, much more so than one-on-one. I'd like to die in a New York storefront with a two-way speaker system, talking all the time, right up to the end."
"I'd like to die in a New York storefront with a two-way speaker system, talking all the time, right up to the end."
Spalding Gray, the shining star of downtown culture, in town for the Miami Light Project presentation of Gray's Anatomy.