Spalding Gray

at the Goodman Theatre, September 7 through 12

Spalding Gray is very funny. He’s also smart, and good at what he does. In the last decade or so he’s wedded self-obsession and story telling in a way that creates an uncommon relationship with his audience. Instead of distancing us, his manic self-explorations ingeniously give us permission to consider our own neuroses.

The historical trajectory of Gray’s connection with his audience is essential–and in fact something like a marriage: initial euphoria (Sex and Death to the Age 14 through A Personal History of the American Theater), occasional disillusionment followed by jubilant rediscovery (Swimming to Cambodia), and sporadic resentments and small joys (Monster in a Box).

Gray’s the kind of performer–perhaps even more than other performance artists–whose scripts couldn’t be done by anyone else, not even in parody. There’s no question that one of Gray’s greatest strengths has always been his uncanny ability to relate his one-of-a-kind adventures, his daunting self-doubts, and his encounters with the absurd as if we were already familiar with them.

But Gray’s Anatomy–his newest monologue, shown at the Goodman Theatre–requires a different kind of familiarity. This time Gray’s not asking for a closeness to the subject matter, either literally or metaphorically, but for an awareness of Spalding Gray the personality and stage persona. Gray’s Anatomy is so self-referential it seems to go in circles. And although it has plenty to recommend it, there’s also a caution: If you haven’t seen Gray before or aren’t that familiar with his work, go rent a video of Swimming to Cambodia or Monster in a Box first.

Certainly every single one of Gray’s past monologues has had insider references–to girlfriend/wife/director Renee Shafransky, to his other stage and performance work, to his friends and associates, to Manhattan. Yet they seemed designed to be understood even by those who hadn’t laid eyes on Shafransky or seen Gray onstage in a particular play or been to Central Park recently.

This time Gray assumes it all: he skips the history of Swimming to Cambodia and goes right to the movie poster. He makes references not to his memory, but to past references about his memory. He jokes that when he was rescued from drowning the day before his wedding, one of the rescuers requested that he be named in Gray’s next show–and then he names the guy, tells us what he does for a living and where he lives. No, it’s not quite self-parody, but it’s damn close sometimes.

And though, as always, Gray’s language is solid, this time he seems to be relying more on description than on insight. Occasionally the descriptions themselves fall short–more journalistic-style lists than the keen observations of before. Perhaps this has more to do with Gray’s failing eyesight–the ostensible subject of Gray’s Anatomy–than with any other failure, but whatever the cause, Gray’s language seems flatter, less original. There are times when he just seems superficial.

The references to Japanese people with cameras are beyond trite. Indeed, all the portrayals of nonwhites–and nearly every story has nonwhites in featured roles–rely on stereotypes, coming perilously close to racist.

Moreover, there are too many obvious punch lines of the kind Gray wouldn’t have used before without a wink. Consider this one, after he gets picked up by a carful of Hasidic Jews on a do-good mission: “I would have never gotten in the car if they hadn’t been Hasidic Jews. I would have never gotten in if they were priests.” Or, after running into Richard Nixon at the office of his eye doctor, who’s Chinese: “Probably just talking China policy.” They’re not necessarily unfunny, but they are a bit too predictable.

In fact, as wonderful as Gray’s Anatomy often is, it leaves a nagging sense of calculation. Perhaps because the show runs about two hours without intermission there’s plenty of time to observe mannerisms and repetitions, so one sees the blueprint rather than appreciating the product. Certainly Gray is smooth in performance, but at times he’s also too mannered. And there’s no doubt that he’s an excellent writer, but sometimes he’s just a tad too tidy, too controlled. Though the stories offered here are full of wild characters and lots of action–Filipino psychic surgery and magic sparrows, Indian sweat lodges in Minneapolis and diet seminars with a nutritional ophthalmologist in New Jersey–after a while we start itching for something to happen: something more, well, real.

In Gray’s Anatomy Gray delivers with an ending that manages to be both hilarious and poignant–a very literal cry for help bearing the stamp of both mortality and truth. Yet, in spite of the awesome vulnerability and beauty of that ending, Gray’s Anatomy remains a transient piece, delightful while it’s happening but not the kind of work that lingers after the curtain drops.

Perhaps this may seem nit-picking, as if Gray were being judged by rules that don’t apply to other performance artists. And it’s certainly true that Gray’s Anatomy by anyone else would be astonishing, but that’s the point: no one else could have done it. It not only relies on Gray to live and perform it but on Gray’s past performances–so much so that it practically demands a comparison with them. And it’s good, very good, but not as good as what’s come before.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/William Wegman.