A Spalding Gray Matter
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 27, 2005
Michael Brandt's one-man show A Spalding Gray Matter is funny, intelligent, and enormously gutsy. Explicitly intended as an homage to the late great monologist, the piece is structured and mounted in precise Gray style: Brandt sits alone at a table, with just a bottle of water and a notebook in front of him, and a screen just above his head behind him that will hold, occasionally, salient graphics to illustrate this or that point. The whole play is nothing but Brandt talking to us, telling us a long, detailed story about an experience in his life and what he thinks it means, interrupted by tangential threads about related topics. One of the tangential threads is about Spalding Gray himself—the automobile accident in Ireland that derailed his life and career for about a year; the misdiagnosis of depression that followed (he was actually suffering from brain damage); Gray's disappearance on January 10, 2004; and the discovery of his lifeless body in the East River nearly two months later.
The dates frame the link between Gray and Brandt: while Gray was missing, Brandt was himself essentially absent from his own life. During a Christmas visit to his family in his home town of Lawrence, Kansas, Brandt—a 33-year-old New York actor—suddenly fell ill. Visits to a local doctor resulted in a diagnosis of influenza; but the prescribed drugs didn't work and just before he was scheduled to return home, he was rediagnosed with bacterial pneumonia. The infection spread to his knee, which swelled up to three times its normal size and rendered him unable to walk. For the rest of that winter, he was pretty much immobilized, either in a hospital or at his parents' home, where his normally uncommunicative father helped him with mundane tasks such as showers and going to the bathroom.
Brandt describes the progress of his illness and recovery; he recounts visits with doctors and nurses whose bedside manners and apparent medical skills often left much to be desired (yet his gratitude to them is absolutely palpable); he talks about medical procedures and enumerates the various painkillers prescribed to him and explains technical matters such as how his IV tube was removed. For much of the play, an x-ray of his lungs—one clear, one almost completely black—is projected behind him on the screen. The throughline of his journey, and the side trips through medical esoterica, are never less than fascinating, and often very funny as well. If you've ever spent time in a hospital, at the mercy of nurses who show up in the middle of the night to draw blood and doctors who unintentionally say scary things with nonchalant casualness, then you'll recognize plenty of what Brandt describes here.
His language is down-to-earth and frequently ironic. A lot of the images he conjures and some of the abstract ideas he trades in—such as why he used to think that people only died at two different ages or his lovely and economical evocation of life in his home town—are crisp and clear and occasionally beautiful and/or profound. The darkly humorous bits—rants about endless rounds of nurses trying to find a vein in his already-battered arm; sarcastic ruminations about his steady bad luck as his body rejects treatment after treatment; that sort of thing—are resonant and bitterly funny. Brandt clearly has a talent for storytelling, as writer and performer; I hope he revisits this form in the future.
The conclusions he draws in A Spalding Gray Matter—about family, destiny, and a new-found understanding of the way life is like a long term recovery process—are interesting and useful if not quite earth-shattering; the links to Gray's own story—the sad end of which he recounts with clarity and empathy—are possibly a bit more tenuous than he hopes. No matter: a good hook is a good hook, and as soon as Brandt starts talking about his own brush with death and Gray's final brush with life, we're with him, and he holds our interest for the full hour. This is a fine piece on its own and an extremely impressive debut.
Ian Morgan's direction is on target and completely unobtrusive. Lighting (uncredited) is enormously effective.
A Spalding Gray Matter is part of breedingground production's Spring Fever Festival, which features four other fully-staged new works along with occasional showings of a couple of comedy videos (the one that was screened before the performance attended, breedingground's own The Crawl, is hilarious and very well-realized). The energy and the attitudes at the festival felt great to me: I encourage everyone to take in this show or any of the others for a look at some of the adventurous new theatre happening at the edges of downtown's creative scene.