Gray's Matter

Spalding Gray's `Morning, Noon and Night' is a calming self-examination of the actor, who went from the fast lane to fatherhood.

April 25, 2001|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

Sitting on stage behind a pine table, armed with a glass of water, actor Spalding Gray has spent the past 25 years talking about himself.

Through 18 autobiographical monologues, he has shared stories from his exotic, careering life with thousands of strangers. He has talked about his adolescent sexual encounters, recounted details of movie-making and mused about creation and death, especially death. He has become known for blending hilarity with darkness - and for sweeping lovers, relatives and friends into the fast-moving currents of his narratives.

When he last took the stage in Baltimore, Gray spoke of searching for a cure for an eye problem, a quest that took him to an American Indian sweat lodge, to faith healers in the Philippines and, eventually, to the micro-surgery that actually helped.

That was seven years ago. A lot has happened since the 59-year-old's sight was corrected - two monologues' worth, in fact.

In "It's a Slippery Slope," Gray revealed that he was deeply involved in an affair when he married his longtime companion. Then audiences learned that his younger girlfriend became pregnant, causing him to become a father for the first time - and to divorce his new wife.

His latest work is perhaps less dramatic: It's about the rewards and frustrations of family life.

In "Morning, Noon and Night," the restless, self-analytical artist finds a new purpose in parenting with companion Kathie Russo, her 11-year old daughter, Marissa, and their two sons: Forrest, 4, and infant Theo. Having left New York for a charming old house in Sag Harbor, Long Island, Gray chronicles what he considers the perks of village life: long bike rides, lawn-mowing and easy access to historic tombstones.

He finds humor in the plastic action figures that have taken over his bathroom and poignancy in how quickly his children grow. He seems satisfied in the role of middle-aged family man - but only intermittently. In Gray's life, nothing is ever simple. So just as his latest monologue introduces the theme of domestic contentment, it also suggests the end of his carefully developed art form.

"The monologues have assumed a clear shape: from the child to the adolescent to the post-adolescent - a period which can go on forever and ever unless you have children, then that cures it," he said recently. "I feel this is a completion of the cycle."

Although he credits his children for inspiring the fresh tone of this work, Gray believes further monologues would invade their privacy. The time has come, he says, to find a different method of self-examination.

He's mining his daily journals for material for short stories, teaching, lecturing, taking roles in stage and television productions, and making plans to update his most famous monologue, the Obie Award-winning "Swimming to Cambodia," for its 20th anniversary next year.

"It's hard to let go [of the monologues]," he says. "They are almost like my own version of ritual or religion. The way Kathie might get out a family album to refresh her memory, I have these. They give me fortitude to go on in the chaotic and disorganized unknown of the present."

Born in Barrington, R.I., Gray began acting in regional and off-Broadway theater, working in the 1960s and '70s with Richard Schechner and the Performance Group. In 1977, he helped found The Wooster Group, an award-winning contemporary theater ensemble in SoHo. The ensemble's first work was based on Gray's personal history, particularly events surrounding his mother's suicide, which have also resurfaced in his later monologues.

The artist has performed his monologues throughout the United States, Europe and Australia. Many have appeared as books, and "Swimming to Cambodia" and "Gray's Anatomy," were made into films.

Gray seems to have crafted his life into one long artful confession - too much for some, keenly on the mark for others.

"It seems to me that Spalding has made monologues the way that oysters make pearls: By using the irritations in his life," says Bernard Gersten, executive director of Lincoln Center Theater. "Few of us torture ourselves the same way Spalding does. As an acute observer of himself, he has fashioned this extraordinary material that thousands of us have enjoyed and encountered in a variety of ways; this material spun like silk out of pain and anguish and bemusement.

"Spalding does what artists have done for ages: Rembrandt painted self-portrait after self-portrait. Hamlet is very self-examining ... playwrights write about themselves. I think Spalding's feature may be his willingness to `strip naked' in front of a thousand strangers. He conducts what you might call `autopsies vivantes.' "

Gray describes himself as "a kind of poetic reporter, more impressionist painter than photographer."

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