Morning, Noon and Night
at the Goodman Theatre, September 7-12
By Laura Molzahn
Spalding Gray is a pig. Charming, articulate, funny, but a pig. So what? you might ask. You’re not married to him. Oh, but I am (or was for 25 years, until my husband’s death two years ago–and no, I did not murder him, much as I would have liked to on occasion). Countless American women are married to Spalding Gray: the assumptions about gender roles he makes in his insidiously attractive new monologue, Morning, Noon and Night, are pervasive in men of a certain age and class–assumptions that strangle women’s creative lives.
You may say that the moral quality of Gray’s personal life shouldn’t affect my opinion of his work. But if you live by the sword of daily existence, you must die by it too. Monologues by and about the person onstage inevitably invite judgments about him. And Gray has made a career out of putting his life onstage, from such early works as Sex and Death to the Age 14, about his adolescence, to the monologue that preceded this one, It’s a Slippery Slope, about his decision at the age of 50 to leave a 14-year relationship with the woman he’d finally married for a much younger woman he’d got pregnant, Kathie Russo.
Kathie went through her pregnancy and the birth of their child, Forrest, alone. Gray didn’t even see the boy until he was eight months old. Then he had a change of heart, left his wife, and moved in with Kathie, her daughter Marissa, and Forrest. He didn’t marry her, though they had another unplanned child, Theo, about four years after Forrest was born. Morning, Noon and Night details one day–October 8, 1997–in their lives in the affluent community of Sag Harbor on Long Island, when Marissa was ten, Forrest five, and Theo nine months.
Gray’s decisions about his personal life raise a lot of questions, but he could have redeemed himself with the details of this one day. He doesn’t. He lets Kathie do all the work; it’s obvious that her life is organized around meeting his needs. After all, he’s the one with a life of the mind; idleness is his due. While she gets the kids up and ready for the day, he takes a shower and does his yoga. He briefly baby-sits when Kathie takes Marissa and Forrest to school, then hands Theo to her when she goes upstairs to work (he doesn’t tell us what she does) so that he can read the newspaper. He rides his bike (“The long bike rides keep me sane”), buys lunch supplies at the grocery store, and picks up Forrest from school. He takes a nap, eats dinner (which Kathie cooked), buys ice cream for the family, and goes to bed.
Like men all across the country, his reasoning is “I bought the house. I pay for the maintenance and repairs. I make a good living.” Ergo his work is done. Kathie is the one who must call the contractors and plumbers–she is Italian-American, he explains–and deal with them when they arrive at the house. In one sequence Gray feels a tickling that indicates the need for sex and entices Kathie into bed, but a misplaced Tickle Me Elmo doll disrupts the proceedings–and then the electrician arrives. Ludicrously, Kathie apologizes to Gray and runs downstairs while he fumes. When she became pregnant with Theo, Gray wasn’t sure he wanted another child. But did he discuss the matter with her? No, with his therapist, to clarify his own wants. He makes a point of telling us that Kathie agreed to abide by his wish–abortion or baby–whatever it was, though she did put her foot down and say she wouldn’t have two operations. She’d have her tubes tied or she’d have an abortion–and if she had an abortion, he’d have to have a vasectomy. Though Gray says he was too old to opt for death, clearly the prospect of an operation on his own private parts also played a role in his decision to have the baby.
You may say that whether Kathie Russo decides to live with Spalding Gray is her business and has no bearing on the piece. But the fact is that Gray casts us, the audience, in Kathie’s role: We sit silently in the dark. We have no lines. We have no character. We fulfill Gray’s needs and have none of our own–we listen to his stories, laugh at his jokes. A proscenium stage with a chattering, gesticulating man on it makes Kathies of us all, as we gather round the alpha male holding forth at a party of his own making.
It’s not as if Morning, Noon and Night has no redeeming features. The sequences when Gray reproduces the cacophony of family life and his talks with Forrest are brilliant, full of energy and life–perhaps because he’s finally turned his attention away from the sensations in his scrotum to acknowledge other people’s existence. And he is blessedly honest at times–on the few occasions when he chooses to address thorny issues. It’s obvious throughout the piece that he doesn’t feel the same love for Marissa that he does for the boys, and near the end he confesses that. (I wonder what kind of monologue she’d write when she grows up, caught as she is between two families and not feeling completely a member of either.) And when Gray falls into bed exhausted at 10:15, in one of his few moments of self-awareness he exclaims that he hasn’t even worked. He then offers a sentence-long paean to working single mothers but seems blissfully unaware there’s one living under his roof.
I confess I was often amused by Gray’s chatter. But I didn’t like him. I didn’t like the fact that he never talks about his former wife (though she’s mentioned once or twice), about Kathie’s character, about his decision not to marry her, about taking up with a woman young enough to be his daughter. (Watch out, Kathie, when he says there are no sexy women in Sag Harbor–he may well mean you too. A man who will leave one long-term relationship will leave another.)
I would have been more forgiving of Gray’s personal flaws, perhaps, if Morning, Noon and Night had had any genuine intellectual interest. But though Gray cites as predecessors Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, and James Joyce’s Ulysses, those comparisons are pure arrogance. He doesn’t have the generosity and broad vision of these writers, each of whom provides insight into a whole town’s worth of characters. Gray focuses instead on Sag Harbor’s colonial architecture and ancient cemeteries; when the townsfolk make their brief appearances, they’re merely provincial, small-minded obstructions to his happiness. And where Joyce used a single day in the life of an Irish town to capture something universal about the human experience, Gray’s piece remains stubbornly stuck in his own small needs and fears. Where Molly Bloom’s monologue is famously life affirming, Gray’s merely affirms the existence of Spalding Gray.
I’m at the disadvantage of never having seen a Gray monologue before. But from what I’ve read, he seems to have abandoned the sexual, political, and intellectual explorations that characterized his previous work. Instead Morning, Noon and Night uncritically presents detail after detail of the bourgeois life: it’s filled with talk about real estate and about the cute things the kids say and do. Gray confesses that he now finds the American flag touching and that he took part in his children’s baptism despite his religious doubts because he wants to be with his family in heaven. I understand the sentiments, and people do mellow as they get older. But there’s no spiritual or moral quest here. Instead we get the cocktail party chatter of a self-satisfied middle-aged man. That’s all.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Noah L. Greenberg.