Spalding Gray's latest adventure in monologue is an anatomy lesson

June 05, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Spalding Gray has just arrived in Portland, Ore., after four days at a jungle island resort in the Strait of Malacca, where he spent much of his time fending off a large, wrathful monkey.

Gray went to the resort to relax after working on a new John Boorman movie called "Beyond," about a 1988 pro-democracy uprising in Burma. But his contretemps with the monkey left him sounding more on edge than usual.

"I began carrying a big stick," Gray says. "I became like this old character in this place. People were staring at me. I said, 'This is my monkey stick.' . . . A narrative began to happen: The adventures of Spalding Gray."

More likely, the continuing adventures of Spalding Gray. That's because Gray is an actor and writer who has built a reputation performing monologues that chronicle his adventures.

To date there are 14 monologues. The best known is probably his Obie Award-winning "Swimming to Cambodia," based on his experiences playing the American ambassador's aide in the movie "The Killing Fields." Four years ago, he came to Baltimore with "Monster in a Box," his account of the interruptions plaguing his efforts to write his first novel, "Impossible Vacation."

Now, that autobiographical novel has been published, and Gray has been plagued by another problem -- a distortion in the vision of his left eye caused by a macular pucker, a crinkling of the retina in the area that perceives fine detail.

His search for a cure is the subject of his newest monologue, "Gray's Anatomy," which he will perform Friday and Saturday at Center Stage as part of the theater's Off Center performance series.

The adventures Gray chronicles in this latest public excursion into self-analysis take him from his Christian Science roots to an American Indian sweat lodge outside Minneapolis, to the Philippine operating room of a man known as the "Elvis Presley of psychic surgeons," to, eventually, the modern micro-surgery that cured him.

"I think it's my most successful monologue to date," he says of "Gray's Anatomy," which has been published by Vintage Books in an expanded form. "I feel that way because I collaborated more than I ever had before . . . so that it's two consciousnesses."

The second consciousness is that of Renee Shafransky, Gray's longtime girlfriend and the director of the piece. The monologue ends with an account of their wedding. They have since separated, although they continue to work together.

Gray, who turns 53 today, also believes the monologue is his most accessible. "It's about something that will happen to all of us. The body will break down, and we'll have to deal with it," he says. "And, it's a very spiritual piece -- about facing death."

The monologue includes a statement that typifies Gray's wit as well as his philosophical outlook. "Doubt is my bottom line," he says before he undergoes psychic surgery in Manila. "The only thing I don't doubt is my own doubt."

Elaborating on that now, he adds, "Anecdote is the raft for me in the middle of a sea of chaos."

One of Gray's increasing concerns is that, instead of being totally involved in experiences as they are happening, he looks at them as anecdotal material for subsequent monologues. "My fear is that I won't have lived, that I will have done the piece of theater and . . . that there's another place to go that I don't know. I think that place is a private one, but I'm not a private person, so I wonder if I'll ever go there."

Furthermore, Gray -- whose soul-baring monologues frequently include references to sex, drugs and his mother's suicide -- acknowledges, "It's very hard for me to do anything without an audience."

Unlike Gray's novel, which was his first exercise in written prose, his monologues all begin as spoken performances. The published versions are transcribed from tape recordings of those performances.

But while Gray acknowledges, "Everything will always go to another monologue because that is the nature of my creativity," he also says he's not working on a new monologue.

"There's nothing there. It's an empty void. That's why I'm trying to do more film work. So, I'm frightened."

And even the film work can be frightening. For most of his movie career, the distinguished-looking New England-bred actor has been typecast in what he calls "WASP patrician" roles, including a number of doctors and, in his most recently released film, "The Paper," as an elitist newspaper editor.

His breakthrough came last fall in Steven Soderbergh's "King of the Hill," in which he portrayed an elegant gentleman who has been ruined by the Depression and commits suicide. Gray was grateful for the opportunity to play a role that "let me show my sadness." But because of his mother's history, he says, "Re-enacting that suicide was really very, very powerful and frightening."

In addition to "Beyond" -- the movie he just finished filming in Southeast Asia -- Gray will also be seen in "The Tool Shed," a forthcoming film about industrial espionage.

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