Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell
nytheatre.com review by Anthony C.E. Nelson
March 4, 2007
Spalding Gray, the actor and writer who committed suicide in 2004 at the age of 62, lived a life of vigorous self-examination. He was best known for his intensely personal monologues, which he wrote and then performed seated at a desk, with nothing but a glass of water by his side. Considering what a solitary, inwardly focused theatrical presence he was, it is fascinating to watch the work of the committee that has been assembled to help create Stories Left to Tell, a new show cobbled together out of Gray's writings that is being presented at the Minetta Lane Theatre.
Gray's widow, Kathie Russo, who is a regular character in his writing, arranged the performance after going through the writings that he left behind. The piece includes bits and pieces of his many previously performed pieces (of which Swimming to Cambodia and its subsequent film are probably the best known) as well as journals, letters, and more personal pieces of writing. To her credit, Russo does not try to whitewash Gray's private thoughts and dark moments; his suicide note is among the bits of writing that we hear.
The play begins with a surprising choice: the music of the Spice Girls "Wannabe." It is to this unexpected musical choice that the four performers bounce onto the stage, assuming poses among the piles of notebooks that dominate David Korins's set. The actress representing love (Kathleen Chalfant) launches into a benign tale about Gray dealing with his step-daughter's loud blasting of the Spice Girls, only to have his annoyance melted away by the mere presence of his infant son. At first, it seems an odd choice to begin a piece devoted to the irascible Gray with such a saccharine tale, but it rapidly becomes apparent why this was chosen. The blissful, simple moments with his children that open and close the piece represent the fleeting and extremely rare possibility of moments of absolute purity that Gray pursued all his life and was granted all too rarely.
The play is broken up into stories which are told by one of the four performers, usually without any help from anyone else. Occasionally the other actors will contribute a sound effect or sit close by, but mostly when one actor is speaking the others assume choreographed poses of blissful attentiveness. The actors' parts are divided by theme, featuring Love (the venerable and excellent Kathleen Chalfant), Adventure (the energetic Hazelle Goodman), Journals (Ain Gordon), and family (Frank Wood), although I would not really have noticed this without the program informing me. A guest actor takes on several caustic monologues about Career (currently a very funny Fisher Stevens). None of the actors bears any resemblance to Gray physically, and all of them simply perform in their own personal styles. Although they are all quite good, the most effective performances are the more minimalist ones given by the lesser-known (at least to me) actors, Wood and Gordon, perhaps because their styles are closer to the way Gray would have performed his own material.
Lucy Sexton's staging is generally clear and supportive of the text, although the choice to have the characters carry around notebooks and journals as though reading from them would prove extremely distracting when Hazelle Goodman let hers drop several times and we could see the pages were blank! I would also quibble with the choice to have the actors wear visible mics; the space is not big enough to require this, and the moment when Wood stepped away from an on-stage mic and spoke directly to us seemed to me to enhance the intimacy of what was occurring.
The throughline of the piece—which explores Gray's relationship with his parents, his ambivalent opinions on his own career, and his sexual experiences—is Gray's need to examine himself, and his glory in the rare moments when life permitted him to step away and simply be. His need for such moments is palpable; in a journal entry from 1967 he writes, "I want nothing more than to become a leaf, not to write about it, but to do nothing, to be taken in and bathed. For me a perfect moment is when I'm being there and nowhere else in my mind." We share his joy as he finds these moments in his family, encountering in his infant children a simple consciousness and a connection that he has always longed for. His terror after a car accident leaves him with brain damage and incapable of feeling these moments, and his intense desire to shield his children from seeing their father in a diminished state, moved me to tears.
The play closes with the recounting of an idyllic family moment, as the entire Gray clan dances to the gleeful chorus of Chumbawumba's popular song, "I get knocked down, but I get up again, you're never gonna keep me down." It is our loss that something as everyday as a car accident dealt Gray the blow that got worse and worse, until one day, he simply couldn't find it in himself to get back up.