It’s a Slippery Slope

Spalding Gray

at the Goodman Theatre,

September 3-8

By Jack Helbig

Spalding Gray was the perfect monologuist for the 80s. A fair-haired heterosexual WASP male–a member of the only truly acceptable demographic group then–he had problems that were the only truly acceptable problems of the time: a dysfunctional family life (cold father, disturbed mother), alienation from his feelings, fear of spontaneity, and envy of those who weren’t repressed, alienated, and spontaneous.

Yet Gray was a bohemian. He lived with an artistic woman in a loft in downtown New York City, before lofts became a way to sell trendy urbanites stripped-down living quarters at luxury prices. He was a member of a hip fringe theater ensemble, the Wooster Group. He loved to do weird bohemian things: take drugs, study theater, go on crackpot spiritual journeys. He was one of us, listening to NPR, going to foreign and independent films, not particularly fond of the regime in Washington or of corporate culture. But what are you gonna do? You’ve got to make a living.

Gray’s dual citizenship was reflected in his trademark performance costume–plaid shirt, casual pants, pristine work shoes. These could be read as both a rebellion against the world of pinstripes and wing tips and as the ideal preppy weekend uniform, direct from L.L. Bean.

His monologues, too, were tailor-made for the 80s. He was ambivalent about the 60s but not dismissive or hostile to the era the way ex-radicals like David Horowitz and ex-Lampoonists like P.J. O’Rourke were, or oblivious to the decade’s finer qualities like most of the Reagan-Bush crowd. Openly acknowledging his 60s roots, Gray wrote monologues tightly packed with the preoccupations and attitudes of that time: drugs, sexual freedom, spiritual quests, and the undisciplined mixing of all three. But he never let his embrace of 60s idealism get in the way of a good time. When Gray went to India in search of spiritual enlightenment, as he related in India and After (America), his path led him to tantric yoga, which teaches better living through ritualized sex. But not from there to spiritual peace.

What really made Spalding Gray perfect for the 80s, however, was that he only talked about one thing: Spalding Gray. He rarely strayed into uncomfortable territory, whether political, social, or sexual. He never found himself attracted to a man. He never noticed the American class system. Only in Swimming to Cambodia did he venture to comment on American foreign policy, and then only to point out our complicity, nearly 20 years after the fact, in the Cambodian holocaust.

How comforting for an increasingly isolated, atomized, self-obsessed audience to see an isolated, atomized, self-obsessed performer–once part of a vibrant theater collective but now working alone and loving it–yammer on and on about himself without any off-putting digressions about responsibility or social conscience. His shows even worked as a vicarious kind of therapy, allowing audiences to play both the carefully listening analyst and the ever-talkative analysand without ever exposing themselves to the risks and discoveries of real psychoanalysis.

Gray may have been wittily chattering on about the filming of The Killing Fields or about buying a ramshackle cabin in the Catskills (Terrors of Pleasure: The House) or about the hell he went through failing to finish his novel Impossible Vacation (Monster in a Box). But he always delivered the same comforting middle-class message: These journeys were foolish, I acted like a child. It was interesting looking for (pick one) God, enlightenment, the right way to live, the ultimate kick, the perfect drug experience, the reason I can’t write about my mother’s suicide. But I acted like a child and I know better now. “I’ll buckle down. I’ll buckle down. I’ll do it. I’ll buckle down,” to quote Gray’s brilliant ending to Sex and Death to the Age 14.

But now, more than halfway through the 90s, we’re all older and more tired. The character traits that seemed amusing in a man in his late 30s or early 40s–magical thinking, free-floating lust, lack of boundaries, fear of deep feelings–seem pathetic in a 52-year-old. Watching his most recent shows we find ourselves wondering, Where is Gray’s wisdom? Why does he still seek out charlatans (as he recounted in his last show, Gray’s Anatomy)? Why does he still think the cure for psychological problems is to run away, or to become obsessed with some new drug or religion or activity?

To make matters worse, everywhere you look these days there are Spalding Gray wannabes spilling out their life stories onstage and hoping they’re art. This at a time when Gray himself seems tired and more than a little played out. In the 17 years since he began doing himself, Gray has performed 15 autobiographical shows and written one long, witty autobiographical novel. What more could there be for him to say?

Two years ago these questions haunted Gray’s Anatomy, the first show in which I began to tire of his storytelling strategy: discover a personal problem (in this case a problem with his retina) and attempt to solve it by the least conventional means possible (Gray visits all manner of New Age healers before submitting to an ophthalmologist). It was also the first show in which I thought, Maybe I know too much about Spalding Gray–his childhood in Rhode Island, his Christian Scientist mom, his boho life in Soho, his sputtering career in Hollywood, the constant shadow of his mother’s tragic suicide.

It’s a Slippery Slope, the newest show, starts out with more of the same. Approaching 52, the age at which his mother killed herself, Gray brushes up against his own mortality and freaks out: he becomes obsessed with skiing, marries his longtime companion Renee Shafransky, and has an affair with someone else. His fling gets pregnant and, to his horror, refuses to abort. She gives birth to a son, and it’s Shafransky’s turn to freak out. She gives Gray an ultimatum, and being the perfect passive-aggressive male he freezes up, not knowing what to do. Up to that critical moment this story resembles dozens of Gray’s others. And suffers for it: the middle third of It’s a Slippery Slope is slower and less interesting than even the slowest sections of Gray’s Anatomy.

But when Gray is confronted with the reality of a child, his first, his narrative changes. Suddenly we aren’t hearing yet another recap of the silly, funny things he did on his summer vacation–we’re listening to a 90s pop-psych version of Pilgrim’s Progress. For the last third of the show Gray carefully charts his journey from the slough of despond to personal familial bliss. He dumps Shafransky, who he says is just a child in an adult body anyway, as he was. He invites his mistress and her children to join him in his loft. And, most amazing of all, he turns his obsession du jour–skiing–into an enlightenment of sorts.

Many have made much of this change. The good Goodman spin doctors have promoted this as Gray’s “major life shift” show, and that notion has been faithfully reported by the media in interviews, features, and fawning reviews. But I’m not convinced. This sounds more like a garden-variety midlife crisis to me, complete with trophy wife and new second family. Sure, Gray talks about how much better his life is now, with a bawling baby and a lactating lover. But he has to say that to justify his abandonment of Shafransky–a woman who’s appeared in nearly all his previous works as the sainted giver of succor, the one person of sense in an entertainingly dysfunctional world. It was Renee, after all, whom Gray credited with helping him finally release his monster from the box, his long-unfinished novel.

To an erstwhile fan like me–who always admired Gray for his candor, underlying emotional strength, and willingness to publicly examine his every flaw and misstep–hearing him casually discuss betraying Shafransky then dropping her from the narrative was as chilling as it would be to hear Ward Cleaver discuss how he traded in June for Miss Landers. It’s like hearing the story of Medea from Jason’s point of view. Suddenly this honey-voiced storyteller doesn’t seem so trustworthy or so insightful. Everything he’s said in the past takes on new meaning. His various quests for truth, understanding, and enlightenment seem more like flights from responsibility. He wasn’t swimming to Cambodia; he was crawling away from Mommy.

True, the final third of Gray’s show contains some of his most vivid and poetic writing, including a sublimely funny re-creation of his last laconic conversation with his father and a heartbreaking meditation on mortality that ends: “No one is watching over us. And I will die. And you’ll die.”

But I kept wanting to hear Renee’s side of things, to hear her talk about how she dealt with a man like Gray, how she felt spending the last minutes on her biological clock mothering a childish adult male monologuist only to have him leave when he accidentally impregnated a younger, fertile woman. I imagine Gray wouldn’t sound so grown-up in her solo show. I imagine his “major life change” would sound like new clothes on the same old tired body.

The day before I saw It’s a Slippery Slope I read an essay by novelist Carole Maso in which she quipped that she wished “straight white males [would] reconsider the impulse to cover the world with their words, fill up every page, every surface, everywhere.” To which I responded, as a straight white male writer, with a “fuck you” neatly printed in the book’s margin. But after seeing Gray’s latest show, I find I’m more sympathetic to Maso’s wish.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Randy Tunnell.