Spalding Gray had way with solo acts

Appreciation

March 09, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

On a bare stage, seated at a table with a notebook and a glass of water as his sole companions, Spalding Gray would quietly regale audiences with intensely personal monologues on such subjects as sex, drugs, therapy, infidelity and a family history of suicide.

The monologist, actor and writer was confirmed dead yesterday after having disappeared from his Manhattan apartment two months ago. Although the cause of death was still being investigated, Gray had attempted suicide in the past.

Gray, 62, was reported missing by his wife, Kathleen Russo, on Jan. 11. His body was found in the East River on Sunday and was identified through X-rays and dental records.

In an interview with The Sun in 1990 - before the first of four appearances in Baltimore over the course of 11 years - Gray explained that he became interested in confessional monologues in the late 1970s when he was teaching a performance workshop at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

At the time, he was beset with feelings that the world was coming to an end. When a fellow faculty member reminded him that "the last artists in Rome were the chroniclers," Gray decided, "the least I can do in the face of everything is to chronicle my life orally."

That led to Sex and Death to the Age 14, the first of 18 monologues, several of which were turned into movies. Among his best-known solo pieces were the Obie Award-winning Swimming to Cambodia (about his experiences portraying the U.S. ambassador's aide in the feature film The Killing Fields); Monster in a Box (about the interruptions that plagued the writing of his 1992 autobiographical novel Impossible Vacation); Gray's Anatomy (about his search for a cure for his eye disease); It's a Slippery Slope (about overcoming a fear of skiing and divorcing his wife so he could marry his pregnant girlfriend); and Morning, Noon and Night (about parenthood).

Born in Barrington, R.I., Gray suffered from dyslexia and behavior problems during his school days, not graduating from high school until he was 20. It was during his senior year at a Maine boarding school, however, that he found his calling in theater. That came with a nervous, halting audition that won him a role in The Curious Savage, a play by John Patrick, set in an insane asylum.

Gray went on to graduate from Emerson College in Boston before launching his professional acting career in regional theaters. He then joined New York's experimental Performance Group, which he left to co-found the avant-garde Wooster Group.

But it was as a monologist that Gray truly came into his own, and he continued grappling with solo pieces for the rest of his career. The monologue that became his last was based on a life-threatening car accident in 2001 in Ireland, where he was on vacation to celebrate his 60th birthday.

Gray suffered a fractured skull and broken hip as a result of the crash, along with recurring depression. Several suicide attempts or threatened attempts occurred after the car accident, including an attempt in October 2002 to jump off a bridge near his Long Island home.

A monologue called Black Spot, based on his car accident, was scheduled to debut later that year, but had to be canceled. He returned to the subject in October 2003, however, with a work now titled Life Interrupted, which he performed twice a week for three months at New York's P.S. 122.

Over the years, Gray took breaks from his solo performing career to play small roles in movies including Clara's Heart, Beaches, The Paper and True Stories, as well as The Killing Fields. In his 1990 Sun interview, he lamented the fact that Hollywood producers "see me as a WASP patrician. ... So they can plug me into these small roles that don't touch any part of my perverse comic soul."

In a Sun interview four years later, however, he expressed gratitude to director Steven Soderbergh for casting him in a role that "let me show my sadness." The movie was the 1993 King of the Hill, and the role was that of an elegant gentleman who committed suicide after being ruined by the Depression. But at the same time that Gray appreciated the acting opportunity, he also acknowledged that, in light of his own mother's self-inflicted death at age 52, "Re-enacting that suicide was really very, very powerful and frightening."

Gray also occasionally performed in other writers' plays, his most notable appearances were his portrayal of the Stage Manager in the 1989 Broadway revival of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, and his appearance in the 2000 Broadway revival of Gore Vidal's The Best Man.

At the time of his disappearance in January, there were some who held out hope that Gray was gathering material for his next monologue. His confessional works were sometimes described as "talking cures," a phrase intended to refer to their effect on the audience as well as the performer.

But in his 1994 Sun interview, Gray expressed doubts about the therapeutic value his monologues may have had for him, saying that he feared that instead of truly experiencing his life as it was taking place, he may have become trapped into viewing his experiences merely as anecdotal material for future 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," he said. "I think that place is a private one, but I'm not a private person, so I wonder if I'll ever go there."

In addition to his wife, Gray is survived by a stepdaughter and two sons.

Wire services contributed to this article.

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