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Spalding Gray: Waving and drowning

Byron Woods 

Waving and drowning

Colleagues in New York had already warned me that he wasn't a good interview, and hadn't been one in some time: taciturn, moody, king of the one-word answer. So when I sat down with Spalding Gray over a late breakfast in Soho on a cold sunny Tuesday morning in January two years ago, I was prepared for anything--except the story I ultimately encountered.

Oh, I'd prepped, all right--with a semester's research and one conference paper already completed on the artist, and the script for the show he would do at N.C. State under my belt. And for all that, I still felt fundamentally blind on perhaps the most fundamental issue going in.

When interviewing people like Philip Glass or Anna Deavere Smith, the boundaries between appropriate and inappropriate questions were pretty unambiguous. You asked about the music or the body politic; the inspirations for the latest and the earlier works. The ex-wife and the lovers? Obviously off-limits, non-germane. With most subjects, the guardrails between public art and private person were fairly clear.

But when an artist's subject matter is his life, what's fair game? What's public? What's private?

It's the first point I made in our conversation. "I know there are boundaries you must observe as an autobiographical artist and a private person living his own life," I told Mr. Gray. "You know what those boundaries are, but I feel I'm coming in to this conversation blind to them.

"I've been basically following your work since Swimming to Cambodia," I said. "And having read the text for Morning, Noon and Night, it still seems presumptuous to sit here and ask you, 'So, how are the kids?' I may have laid eyes on you before, but you don't know me from Adam.

"I know there's a private realm here. And I want to be careful about that."

The tape shows we talked for an hour after that. I listened to it again the other night. By the end of breakfast I had a story about a man who was quite convinced he'd been cursed by a real estate agent who also was a witch in the village of Sag Harbor. Gray was convinced she'd somehow caused the car wreck in Ireland that crushed his sinuses and fractured the front part of his skull, broke his hip and damaged his sciatic nerve.

Somehow he knew that, single-handedly, she had dislodged him from a healthy body and from the only home he said he'd known in years, if not decades; dislodged him from a career and from the one place he should have been on Sept. 11, four months prior--downtown New York. "If I had been there, I could have witnessed people's stories," he said. "I was supposed to."

And as he told his story, the quiet, preoccupied man at the start of our interview grew increasingly more agitated. His haunted, furtive eyes and hands that could not stop trembling indicated a growing desperation, one that was one stage short of a panic attack by the end. He had a life, a vocation, a home, and good health--until "something," he rasped in a near-whisper, "got me out of it."

It was clear that Mr. Gray was in a very extreme state. I could scarcely imagine a man in his condition doing a concert tour, and privately questioned the judgment of a wife--also his manager--who condoned it.

After our interview I did some research to corroborate the details of our conversation. I also wanted to see who he'd told about this witchcraft before me.

There was no mention of the story, anywhere.

He played N.C. State on Feb. 2. By September of that year, he was making suicidal gestures. He reported jumping from a sailboat off North Haven, Long Island--and then climbing back on and sailing home. The same month, a policeman escorted him off a bridge in Sag Harbor. Repeated suicide threats dotted the following months. On Oct. 15, 2003, he was pulled from the water after jumping from the Sag Harbor bridge. On the night of Jan. 10, 2004, after seeing Big Fish--a movie about a terminally ill, storytelling dad who ends his life as a human by jumping into a river--Gray apparently followed suit.

What valediction is appropriate here? The first and humane instinct is to cease critical commentary. In retrospect it is ludicrous that the damage to his frontal lobes went undiagnosed until last fall.

Most civilized states believe that brain damage effectively lifts the victim beyond the realm of judgment.

I pray that North Carolina's judiciary will one day join them.

But had my research been more complete in January 2002, our conversation may well have turned out differently.

It is all but universally acknowledged that Swimming to Cambodia is Gray's masterpiece. It's true I think for one reason. That work--documented for the ages in Jonathan Demme's fine 1987 concert film--was ultimately the only one to successfully escape the gravitational pull of egocentrism and self-absorption that limited the rest of his work.

Gray himself cheerfully owned up to what he called a "creative narcissism." It's the subject matter of his monologues. He bought a lemon of a house in the Catskills in Terrors of Pleasure. The title says it all for Sex and Death to the Age 14. He can't finish a novel in Monster in a Box. He undergoes eye surgery in Gray's Anatomy.

By comparison, getting a bit part in the film The Killing Fields pushed Gray out of his self-referential world in Swimming, to consider the history of American involvement in Southeast Asia and our culture's love affair with war and violence. It proved that autobiography could still embrace the world, if its subject would only do the same.

But Gray's world grew smaller afterwards. By 1997's It's a Slippery Slope--which I hadn't read or seen before our 2002 conversation--Gray's sole subject was marrying and then immediately betraying longtime creative partner Renee Shafransky by having an affair with and impregnating Kathy Russo, the woman who would be his new manager and wife.

There's something sordid about this work. Not only did Gray psychoanalyze his own actions in an intimate relationship, he exposed his partner's deepest frailties as well. He did so, without her consent, in public, to paying audiences, to justify the acts he subsequently took. I think Slope sought to make the audience complicit in this sad tale, by having us tacitly endorse his acts, through silence--and ticket sales.

Slope marked the first time I believed I knew too much about Spalding Gray.

But in retrospect, what reads just as clearly is the thread of desperation, one that laces narratives already slipping out of control--two years before his accident in Ireland.

From his earliest narratives, Gray explored the mental illness that ultimately drove his mother to suicide at age 52. He always worried he'd inherit it, and in the final analysis I am not convinced he didn't, entirely independent of any physical trauma he sustained.

Going by the written record, his narcissism and depression had been accelerating years before the accident. Testimony from friends indicates that trauma weakened his ability to keep the dark at bay. (Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow's on-line essay particularly deserves note, at barlow.typepad.com/barlowfriendz/2004/01/is_spalding_gra.html.)

So when exactly did we lose Spalding Gray? Was it January 2004? June 2001? Or had we been losing him for years before these dates?

Ironically, like Narcissus, Gray also found death in the water, whose imagery permeated his works for decades. When did any of us realize, in the words of Stevie Smith, that he was not waving, but drowning? And what more could anyone have done to stop it? EndBlock

Reviews & Openings

OTHER NOTABLE OPENINGS: Choreo Collective's Current Collection, Chapel Hill High School, Sat-Sun, Mar 20-21, $10-$8, 949-0849; Dora the Explorer Live, Broadway Series South, BTI Center, Fri-Sun, March 19-21, $40-$16, 831-6950; How Anansi Came to America, Omaha Theater Company, Hayti Heritage Center, Thurs., March 18, 9:30am, 11:30am; Proof, Triad Stage, Tues-Sun, through Apr 4, $37-$10, 336-272-0160; Ruddigore, or The Witches' Curse, Durham Savoyards, Carolina Theater (Durham), Fri-Sun, March 19-28, $26-$10, 560-3030; Smut, Dog & Pony Show, Manbites Dog Theater, Fri-Sat, March 19-20, $10, 682-3343; The Snow Queen, DDA Studio 2, Kenan Theater, UNC, Fri-Tue, March 19-23, $5, 962-1132.

REVIEWS:
***1/2 The Subject Was Roses, Playmakers Repertory Company--The holding pattern in the troubled marriage of Timmy's parents quickly loses viability when he comes home from WWII in Frank Gilroy's domestic drama (which took the Tony and the Pulitzer in 1964). These and other changes force a middle-class Irish Catholic family in the Bronx to assess what remains of the home front.

At this point, Gilroy's script shows some signs of age. The legacy of father John's earlier alcoholism remains invisible until it's abruptly dropped into the second act, and the infidelity tormenting mother Nettie ultimately remains little more than a one-line plot device.

Brandon Michael Smith sustains a delicate balance here as Timmy, a young man forming new attachments with a father and negotiating old bonds with his mother, while trying to establish his own autonomy in the world. Meanwhile, J. R. Horne and Tandy Cronyn's chemistry rings true as an estranged couple divided by silence and pain.

But if Roses flirts with melodrama, director Drew Barr's robust characters redeem the work. At the end we're still intensely curious about what happens next to everyone on stage. (Tue.-Sun. through March 21. $32-$10. 962-7529.)

**1/2 Honk! , Raleigh Little Theater. While this recent musical take on The Ugly Duckling claims to have bested The Lion King and Mamma Mia for Best Musical in London, it doesn't remotely come close here. Musical imbalances had us straining to hear lyrics throughout, and the show only truly caught fire when Maura Kate Moore and Kate Bowra truly entertained duckling John Arnold--and us--as that odd cat and chicken couple Lowbutt and Queenie, in the second act's first scene. And don't forget Doug Price's Frenchman send-up as the nemesis Cat. The rest just doesn't come together all that well--though Rick Young's set was imaginative. Maybe drop the kids off for this one? (Wed.-Sun. through March 28. $11-$7. 821-3111.)

** Floating Rhoda & The Glueman, Raleigh Ensemble Players--Okay, now we're worried: Floating Rhoda marks the second fundamentally problematic script in a row to go up on the REP stage. Who is reading these things? While we loved Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues, here she starts from good intentions--showing how fear makes people distance themselves in intimacy--but quickly sandbags characters with really awkward poetry more often than dialogue. Actually, check those good intentions just a bit, as a work so sarcastic about the men's movement (which I have no special love for, either) just as clearly falls prey to just as many cliches about feminist theater. Props to Lynne Guglielmi and Joe Brack for fighting for their characters, and Kelly Lowery and Thaddaeus Edwards for effectively embodying their counterparts. Credit Guglielmi and David Harrell as well for a domestic violence scene that rang too true, and director Heather Willcox for achievements in ensemble. Then find them all a better script than this one. Quickly. (Show closed March 13.)

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